Balancing Press Freedom and Accountability: Malaysia’s New Code of Ethics Sparks Serious Concerns

By The Malketeer

In a move that has ignited debates over the delicate balance between press freedom and responsible journalism, Malaysia recently unveiled an updated code of ethics for journalists. Launched by Communications Minister Fahmi Fadzil on February 20, the code, developed by Malaysia‘s Information Department (JAPEN), has raised serious concerns about potential restrictions on media freedom.

Combatting Fake News and Defamation

The primary motivation behind the revision, according to Minister Fahmi Fadzil, was to adapt to the challenges posed by the rise of social media. The new eight-point code emphasises the importance of combatting fake news and defamation. It applies to both local and foreign media, requiring journalists to refrain from disseminating inaccurate, baseless, and deceitful content.

One of the significant changes in the code is its role in managing Malaysia’s media accreditation cards. Journalists must now adhere to the code to qualify for accreditation, a move vehemently criticised by the press freedom group, Gerakan Media Merdeka (Geramm). This requirement marks a departure from the past, where adherence to the code was not a criterion for accreditation.

Retracting Press Accreditation Cards Akin to State Control

The controversy surrounding the code centres on the authority granted to JAPEN to cancel a journalist’s accreditation based on complaints. Minister Fahmi Fadzil affirmed this power, stating that JAPEN could retract accreditation cards, although he insisted that the primary objective of the code is to ensure ethical journalism principles without compromising media freedom.

Geramm, however, views this development as a concerning form of state control. Radzi Razak, a spokesperson for Geramm, criticised the code, arguing that it introduces ambiguity, particularly regarding the privacy and confidentiality of sources. Points six and seven, according to Razak, create a potential conflict where journalists might be compelled to disclose sources under investigation, infringing upon the principles of journalistic independence.

Hasten Establishment of Independent Oversight Body

The press freedom group called for the establishment of the Malaysian Media Council (MMC) as an independent oversight body, free from government influence. The MMC, in their vision, would ensure that journalists, not a government-controlled agency, oversee the code, protecting press freedom from unwanted political interference.

While Minister Fahmi Fadzil reassured that the code’s objective is ethical journalism, concerns linger about the potential misuse of power and its impact on press freedom. The fear is that the open-ended language in certain code points may lead to arbitrary decisions, allowing JAPEN to wield undue influence over journalists.

The push for an independent MMC is not merely a demand for autonomy; it is a plea for an impartial body that can safeguard both journalistic integrity and freedom. Critics argue that a government-controlled agency overseeing the code is a precarious proposition, susceptible to manipulation and potentially compromising the very essence of a free press.

Excessively Stringent Ethical Framework Stifles Press Freedom

Salleh Said Keruak, who served as the communications and multimedia minister from 2015 to 2018, emphasised the importance of safeguarding media independence for upholding freedom of expression, transparency, and democracy. He acknowledged the code’s intention to address the proliferation of fake news but warned that an excessively stringent ethical framework might hinder journalists from fulfilling their duties optimally.

During Salleh’s tenure, the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 was introduced under the administration of former premier Najib Razak. Although the act aimed to curb the spread of false information, it faced criticism and was subsequently repealed in 2019 during the Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration.

Salleh’s concerns echo the delicate balance between addressing misinformation and ensuring press freedom, a challenge that policymakers continue to grapple with globally.

Backdoor Attempt to Revive Anti-Fake News Act

Human rights groups, such as Lawyers for Liberty (LFL), have raised concerns about potential government control over the media, likening it to a “backdoor” attempt to revive the “draconian” Anti-Fake News Act.

Veteran journalist Datuk A. Kadir Jasin questioned the timing of the new code’s introduction, suggesting that regulatory initiatives should align with the establishment of the MMC. The Malaysian Media Council Bill, to be tabled in Parliament in June, has received Cabinet approval.

Jasin raises a pertinent question: Why rush to establish these ethics unilaterally when the Malaysian Media Act is still pending? This prompts speculation about the motivations behind the hasty introduction of the code, leaving room for concerns about potential interference with press freedom.

Striking a Balance between Accountability and Press Freedom

In navigating these uncharted waters, Malaysia finds itself at a crossroads between embracing the evolving landscape of media and safeguarding the principles that underpin a robust democracy. The government must consider the genuine concerns raised by media practitioners and observers, striking a balance that ensures accountability without infringing upon the essential tenets of press freedom,” voiced many a journalist.

As the debate unfolds, one thing remains clear – the need for a framework that promotes responsible journalism while shielding it from undue external influence. Only through collaborative efforts and a commitment to transparency can Malaysia chart a course that upholds journalistic standards without compromising the fundamental right to a free press.

MARKETING Magazine is not responsible for the content of external sites.

The Malaysian Marketing Conference & Festival 2024 at the Sime Darby Convention Centre is a TWO-day marketing event for all those in Marketing, Media, Advertising, PR, Digital, Data, and more….

The experience is on May 15 & 16, with Keynote Speakers, multiple tracks or Breakaway Sessions hosted by our booth partners who will show you the latest in the industry. 

Download Event PDF
Register Here

Subscribe to our Telegram channel for the latest updates in the marketing and advertising scene