In August, three months after coming to power, the new Pakatan Harapan government in Malaysia repealed the controversial Anti-Fake News Act 2018. This was the first significant step by the ruling party in fulfilling its campaign promise to improve press freedom.

A few days earlier, the prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, appointed the former group editor-in-chief of the New Strait Times and a well-known journalist, A Kadir Jasin, as his media adviser. Jasin himself is facing investigation under the Sedition Act 1948 in a case filed by the previous government for one of his blog posts. His appointment appears to be a clear signal that the government is looking to put the brakes on the deterioration of press freedom in the country, which had accelerated under the previous regime.

The “fake news” law, which the government passed in April this year with a simple majority in parliament, was among the most visible symbols of the negative trend. The law provided for punishment of up to six years’ imprisonment and a fine of 500,000 Malaysian ringgit (about 105,000 euros) for those found guilty of spreading fake news.

Opposition parties and human rights organizations had criticized the measure as an attempt by then-Prime Minister Najib Razak to silence his critics before the parliamentary elections. Notably, Razak had come under pressure due to the financial scandal surrounding 1MDB, or the 1 Malaysia Development Barisal, a government-owned strategic development company. In 2014, the Sarawak Report, an investigative news site and IPI’s 2013 Free Media Pioneer award recipient, reported that Razak had diverted millions of dollars from 1MDB to his personal account.

As the 1MDB scandal and other exposés rattled the ruling party, the government increasingly turned to archaic laws to punish critics. Several editors were arrested under the colonial-era Sedition Act. In 2015, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission blocked access to the Sarawak Report, claiming that it was undermining the stability of the country.

For years, the government tried to rein in the media and took measures to curtail press freedom. It amended old laws and brought in new ones like the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 in an apparent effort to preserve its hold on power. The gamble did not pay off.

A month after passing the Anti-Fake News Act, Razak’s Barisan Nacional coalition, which had ruled the country for 61 years, was thrown out by Malaysians in parliamentary elections, who voted instead in favour of Pakatan Harapan, led by the 93-year-old Mohamad, himself a former prime minister.

During the campaign, Mohamad, who has been credited for turning around the country’s economy during 1997 Asian economic crisis, promised to root out corruption. He also assured voters that the press would be allowed the freedom to report, that harassment of journalists would end and that laws stifling press freedom would be repealed.

A positive start

The new government took over on May 10 and within eight days unblocked the Sarawak Report, withdrew an arrest warrant against its founder, Clare Rewcastle Brown, and allowed her to return to Malaysia. Rewcastle Brown had been barred from entering the country since 2013. Four months later, the Anti-Fake News Act was repealed.

“Journalists are beginning to feel emboldened to write more independently and freely”, Rewcastle Brown said in a recent interview with the International Press Institute (IPI).

While journalists like Rewcastle Brown are hopeful that changes will happen, it is too early to predict how the government will proceed with tackling broader issues of press freedom. Pakatan Harapan has to make good on scores of promises it made during the campaign and, now that it is in power, the party and its leaders have to deal with the realities of governing one of the largest economies in South East Asia.

Bumpy road ahead

Having repealed the Anti-Fake News Act, the government will now have to prioritize a review of all laws restricting the press, and replace those that do not meet international standards, should the country wish to be taken seriously as a democracy.

“A lot of major laws are yet to be pulled together and dealing with the problems they’ve inherited has proven overwhelming”, Rewcastle Brown said. “But there’s a long list of oppressive media laws that the government says will be repealed.”

The previous government had promised to amend the Printing Presses and Publication Act (PPPA) 1984. Under this Act all publications, radio and television stations need to obtain a licence from the government to operate, which can be revoked or suspended at the government’s discretion.

Rewcastle Brown called the PPPA “truly Orwellian”.

“Reading through the lines, it allows the home minister to jail those who write articles which do not please him. Journalists have been tiptoeing around this since 1984.”

However, Rewcastle Brown is apprehensive about promises to repeal, expressing concern that the government does not have enough time to deal with all these laws. The parliament meets four days a week when in session, which she said did not provide enough time for legislative work that is required to amend or repeal these legislations.

Offer to engage

The government has expressed its willingness to engage with the media to improve press freedom. The new communications and multimedia minister, Gobind Singh Deo, recently said that the government would support and cooperate with all parties to “ensure a more conducive environment for media practitioners”.

“As a government that respects freedom of information and expression, we not only expect high standards from all vested-interest stakeholders but that it must come with a heavy responsibility to propagate credible news and information”, Deo said while addressing a meeting in the capital, Kuala Lumpur. He said that his ministry would propose amendments to some of the provisions relating to the Fake News Act that had been used by the previous government.

IPI Head of Advocacy Ravi R. Prasad urge the Malaysian government not to lose momentum.

“Repealing the Anti-Fake News Act alone will not ensure press freedom or freedom of expression”, he said. “It is just the first step in the right direction. A slew of old laws that have been used by successive governments to muzzle the press need to be amended or rescinded. This has to be done quickly to win the faith of people who voted the party to power.”