A group of prominent journalists and press freedom monitors have taken the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to task over its warnings and threats against media outlets, including the ultimatum given to news portal MalaysiaNow to either take down reports on the recent chaos in Parliament or be prepared for "enforcement actions".
In their joint statement, 19 individuals from across the print and broadcast media as well as two interest groups reminded MCMC not to preach to journalists on what constitutes good and fair reporting, after the commission attempted to defend its warning to MalaysiaNow in the face of growing criticism of attempts to stifle press freedom.
"The excuse given by MCMC that a few reports on the event had 'been used as weapons to manipulate content and to create a feeling of disrespect and a narrative of confusion' raises more questions than answers.
"Since when do we consider reporting as a misdemeanour in this country?" the statement said, adding that the incident in the Dewan Rakyat on Sept 19, while showing MPs behaving out of parliamentary decorum, was aired live for all to see.
"Therefore, blaming any news portal for reporting the story is unfair and totally unacceptable."
Saying it was concerned by a recent spate of warnings, calling up of editors, and blocking of news portals by MCMC, they said the commission's defence of its latest threat against MalaysiaNow showed its shallowness in "understanding of the roles and responsibilities of the media".
"We believe MCMC is deliberately fighting windmills to justify its actions. Media practitioners as a whole understand their responsibilities and are guided by their professionalism and code of ethics."
They said that while they agreed there was no such thing as absolute press freedom, a free and vibrant press was vital for democracy to work.
On Sept 20, MCMC, the body under the communications and digital ministry headed by Fahmi Fadzil, gave MalaysiaNow a two-hour deadline to take down its reports on the commotion in the Dewan Rakyat sparked by an accusation thrown by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who is also the Tambun MP, at Perikatan Nasional MP Radzi Jidin.
It said the reports "do not reflect the true context of the speech in question", and that the headlines were "disrespectful and insulting", referring to the words "Tambun is a sodomiser" uttered by Radzi.
Radzi brought up Anwar's past convictions on sodomy after becoming angered by the speaker's statement that there was nothing wrong with Anwar making the accusation if he was convinced of it.
MalaysiaNow has refused to meet MCMC's demand, saying it will not cave to pressure in carrying out its journalistic duty.
The incident led veteran journalist A Kadir Jasin, who was also among those who signed today's statement, to ask if it was now an offence to talk about previous court cases involving the prime minister.
"After 10 months in power, the actions of some leaders in the unity government and agencies related to the mass media give the impression that they are intolerant towards freedom of speech and dissent.
"Some have even filed complaints with the police," said Kadir, who once headed the New Straits Times Press.
Global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which publishes an annual index to rate press freedom worldwide, also condemned the threat against MalaysiaNow, urging MCMC to stop pressuring "media critical of the government".
"RSF denounces the censorship order issued yesterday by the Communications Commission... against a report from MalaysiaNow on the uproar in Parliament," RSF, which previously voiced concern over MCMC's move to block several news sites in the country, said in a Twitter post on Friday.
In its response, MCMC said it wanted to emphasise "the importance of accurately representing the context of speeches delivered in Parliament".
"In order to prevent the commission or attempted commission of an offence under the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, MCMC calls for full cooperation from news outlets and individuals," it added.