What is a Media Council?
A media council, or also known as press councils and the ombudsman, is an independent body that acts as a watchdog of the media. Its aims are to promote media freedom and ethical reporting.
There are media companies that support the council to prevent defamation suits against them, as this is one major concerns for the media industry. But the council is about promoting good journalism and not to prevent defamation suits. It is an opportunity for aggrieved parties to first seek redress from the media and then the council.
The idea of setting up a Council for the Malaysian press was mooted during the 1970s. Over time, different politicians would raise the proposal again.
In 2001, the Malaysian Press Institute at the instigation of the Home Ministry has drafted and discussed a Media Council Bill. Section 12 of the Bill lists functions of the Media Council, including:
- To maintain the highest journalistic standards and to preserve freedom of the Malaysian press, broadcast and online media in accordance with Article 19 of the UDHR;
- To consider, investigate, and deal with complaints about the conduct of the print, broadcast media and the conduct of persons and organizations towards the media;
- To build up a code of conduct for newspapers, news agencies, broadcasting and online media and journalists in accordance with high professional standards.
- To ensure on the part of newspapers, news agencies, broadcasting, and online media and journalists, the maintenance of high standards of public taste and foster a due sense of both the rights and responsibilities of citizenship;
- To keep under review developments likely to restrict the supply by and to the media of information of public interest and importance
- To make representations concerning the freedom of the media on appropriate occasions to Government, public inquiries, and other organisations in Malaysia.
Section 3 of the Bill states that the establishment of the Media Council, a corporate entity, will be effective from a date set by the Federal Government. Section 4 addressed the selection and composition of the 25-member Council. The person appointed as Chairman must have served in a capacity ‘not less than a Justice of the Appeals Court’. The other members of the Council are to be nominated as follows:
- Twelve members will be nominated in accordance with a procedure prescribed by the Council among the chief editors of print media, working journalists, and producers or editors from broadcasting stations and online media.
- Two members shall be media owners or managers, one each from broadcasting and from the print sector.
- One member shall be the manager of a news agency.
- One member shall represent journalists’ associations and unions.
- Eight members shall come from among eminent non-media persons, including four that have knowledge of or experience in the fields of science, educations, and law.
- The Chairman and the Council members, once nominated, will be appointed by King (Yang di-Pertuan Agong). The Chairman will hold office for three years and the other members for two years.
Issues with the Bill
For print and online media, self-regulation is preferable to a statutory system, and statutory regulation of individual journalists is highly contentious. The bill fails to recognise the important differences between the print, broadcast and online media, which in almost all countries have led to a fundamentally different regulatory approach for each of these three sectors. In addition, the independence of the Council could be enhanced and the powers of this body should be more clearly circumscribed.
The Media Council Bill also does little to guarantee media independence given that it states that the Chairman and Council members will be appointed by the King, who usually acts on the advice of the Prime Minister. Another problem is that editors are largely politically appointed, and consequently, their important role in the council does not bode well for the council’s independence. The manner in which it has been proposed has also been criticised. Some see it as an underhand way of imposing censorship on the Internet, under the guise of ethical self-regulation. It is not surprising that the Media Council Bill has raised suspicions, adding, as it does, another layer of regulation to an already over-regulated environment.
In 2001 Inisiatif Wartawan (a coalition of concerned journalists) has submitted a memorandum to the Human Rights Commission, raising amongst other issues their dissatisfaction with the MPI for not consulting journalists before the bill was submitted to the Home Ministry. They also stated that statutory control is unacceptable, especially ‘in an environment where other institutions of democracy are hampered from playing a robust role in checking abuse of power’. The National Human Rights Society (Hakam) President, Ramdas Tikamdas, said the council should only be implemented when a comprehensive statutory regime for freedom of expression was put in place.
On 20 January 2004, a meeting was held under the auspices of the National Human Rights Commission (Suhakam), which brought together editors, journalists and civil society actors to discuss the Media Council. This was to be the beginning of a process of negotiation among the three parties. Despite the rejection by the industry of the draft bill and the establishment of a media council as regulated by the current draft, Suhakam has unilaterally decided to set up an interim regulatory body, the Media Complaints Working Group.
On 11 November 2008, journalists, editors and civil society groups representatives again voiced their concerns at the meeting organized by the Ministry of Home Affairs to discuss the formation of a Media Council. Their concerns were
- Lack of commitment from the government to review existing laws, among them the PPPA, as a precursor to any plans for a council
- Lack of consultation on the issue, as there is little understanding
- The online media should be excluded from any proposal for a media council
Of the invitees, six include non-governmental organizations such as the National Union of Journalists, National Press Club, All-Blogs, the Sabah Journalists Association and the Federation of Sarawak Journalists Association.
- The draft Media Council Bill should be dropped, as statutory regulation of print and online media is not good practice.
- The print media should be allowed and encouraged to establish a truly self-regulatory system.
- Online media and the Internet should not be regulated. Instead they should be encouraged to adopt content rating systems and filtering mechanisms to enable users to control the content they wish to receive.
- Any press or media council that will be established should be fully independent of political and commercial pressures. In particular, this has implications for financing, nomination and appointment of its members, as well as operating procedures.
- Financing for any press or media council should come, at least in part from the media industry.
- It is preferable that a media or press council includes representatives from a cross-section of stakeholders such as journalists, editors, owners and the public.
- The self-regulation body should be financed in a way that ensures full independence from political or commercial interests, ideally by the media industry itself.
- Any code of conduct drafted by the Media Council should be clear and unambiguous in its wording, should be developed in close consultation with the media and other stakeholders, and should be disseminated widely to the public.
- Any self-regulatory mechanism should provide for an independent appeals procedure.
Media Councils Around the World
There are many countries with the media councils or the press ombudsman’s office. The Swedish Press Council, founded in 1916, is the oldest tribunal of its kind in the world. But it is not based on legislation, rather than self-disciplinary system that is entirely voluntary and financed wholly by four press organizations that are also responsible for drawing up the media’s code of ethics.
In the Philippines, apart from the national press council there are councils at the regional levels formed by citizens, while in the US, councils have been formed at the state levels. In Australia and India, there are national councils, the former as a self-regulatory body and the latter a statutory body. Indonesia introduced a more independent press council in 2000 to replace the one set up under the Suharto regime in the late 60s as part of a government body.
But just because many countries have them, it doesn’t mean that we must have one too. We must have the right reasons to support a media council. Educate yourself on what a good media council is and keep look out for government proposals on media councils so that you do not give your vote to more controls of the media.
Media Ethics and Journalists’ Protection
What is media ethics?
In a nutshell, an ethical media serves first and foremost the public’s interest, not the owner’s or the state Executive’s. It strives to present the truth as completely as possible, not a slice of it or worse, none of it. It takes into account not just the dominant voice of the day, but also the minority and dissenting voices. And it weights the pursuit of news with the news subject’s right to privacy, always endeavoring to strike a balance between the two.
What is CIJ’s take on ethics?
CIJ’s advocacy for media freedom is essentially for the media to be ethical and professional. As it is known legislations and the reality of ownership severely hamper and discourage the practise of ethical journalism. The two factors have bred a culture of fear and self-censorship in the newsrooms in order for the owner’s or the State’s agenda to prevail. Our media cannot truly uphold ethical standards because it is not free.
However, the government continues to appropriate the issue of media ethics to justify control of the press. The Home Ministry routinely positions itself as the media’s ethical guardian, and on this pretext, tried several times to impose a Media Council. This is a misleading and disguised attempt to neuter the press’s watch dog function. In addition, the policy of banning media from official functions as way with which to protest unethical reporting by the media is misguided.
The issue of media ethics affects not the journalists and editors alone. Ultimately, the public is the one bearing the brunt of lack of reliable and objective information on various issues. Ordinary members of the public, media professionals, civil society and concerned parliamentarians alike should all work together for a free and ethical press.
How is media ethics and journalists’ protection linked?
When one supports media ethics, one must also support the journalist’s need to operate in a safe environment. Ethics require the journalist to go the extra mile, to thread the dangerous areas to get the news, and to risk the wrath and vengence of those for whom exposure threatens their interest. In Malaysia, the hazard of the profession comes in the form verbal abuse, physical assault, and in one case, beaten to a state of coma. For many journalist, anonymous threat is no stranger to their profession. On the other hand, they can also be subject to intimidating form of interrogation by government agency.
Casting our view to the wider regional scene, in conflict situations in Thailand, Indonesia and Phillipines, journalists who believed in ethical journalism have to risk their lives to practise it. They learned from the experiences of reporting that ethics are the prerequisites to douse the fire of conflicts, and that parties who have an interest in prolonging the volatile situation do their best to prevent it from being practiced. We can certainly take a page from their book to ensure our journalist have a safe environment and a free media culture to do his or her job properly.
Campaign for Law Reform
CIJ’s express goal is to have the major restrictive laws or restrictive provisions as discussed under Freedom of Expression repealed, and for the enactment of a national-level Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. We are pleased that our campaigning since 2005 has bore fruit with the Selangor state’s tabling of the Freedom of Information Bill, and we are now gearing our effort to ensure the Bill will be passed into a law that conforms with the spirit of FOI.
On the media front, our ‘roadmap’ for the goal is first to have parliamentarians set up a multi-party Select Committee on Media Law Reform. The task of the committee will be to conduct public and stakeholders consultation on all restrictive laws in order to draft amendments to and repealing some of the laws. The call for the setting up of the Committee has started since 2006 and currently we are working with parliamentarians from the Pakatan alliance to first initiate a Caucus.
Media monitoring has been one of CIJ’s core activities since 2006, as an instrument to keep up to date on cases of freedom of expression violation and with which an annual country report on freedom of expression is produced.
Subsequently, media monitoring has evolved to be a tool to monitor ethics and standards of reporting.
In 2008 we conducted our first election reporting monitoring. We collaborated with Writers’ Alliance for Media Independence (WAMI) and Charter 2000-Aliran to conduct a on quantitative and qualitative monitoring of the reportage of Malaysia’s 12th General Election in six Peninsular dailies, some with nation-wide circulation. In 2009, CIJ also followed up with a monitoring of the triple by-elections in Bukit Gantang, Bukit Selambau and Batang Ai, this time on a reduced number of print dailies but we included three online news portals. In 2010 we also conducted monitoring on the theme of racialized reporting with the view of organizing training workshops for journalists on de-racializing reporting of governance issues.
Democratizing media ownerships
With the idea of enabling the public to reclaim the media, CIJ has since 2004 started to organize trainings on radio and journalism skills for members of the public. The former was on producing content for radio, in preparation for the community radio project, RadiqRadio. The latter was in consideration of the popularity of online publishing medium such as blogs, which have created the phenomena of citizen journalism.
Today, the trainings continued to be on demand. Although the RadiqRadio project did not materialize, the radio training proved to be an empowering skill for our trainees. They consist of various communities who feels that their voice were under-represented by the mainstream media- women from the lower income groups, youths, transsexuals, and the indigenous communities. To cater to their needs better we have expanded our original module to not just on training of skills, but also on concepts such as media literacy, ethics and human rights. To encourage more people to use the skills as a way with which to express themselves, we organized a yearly Radio Competition among the trainees. The output of the competition is a collection of social narratives expressed creatively.
Similarly, the journalism trainings also continue to evolve. From a regular class to a small group of people, the trainings are now conducted on demand basis. Over the year, we have been regularly invited to East Malaysia to conduct trainings, usually by those who blogs about issues affecting their community. Besides journalism skill, we emphasizes ethics in our training in order to promote responsible writing and a critical outlook for the current news content.
Research and Publications
CIJ’s research and publications are directed for advocacy of law reforms as well as raising public awareness. We collaborated with opinion research firm Merdeka Centre in 2008 and 2009 to conduct public opinion surveys on media issue, and disseminated the results to the public and interested groups to push for reform. We publish an yearly annual review on the situation of freedom of expression in Malaysia to provide a critical outlook of the state’s performance in the area, as well as guidebooks on media laws and standards. Our books are available at the CIJ office as well as at various NGO-organized public events, where CIJ staff members are there to also meet the public.