Status: Not Free
Legal Environment: 24 (of 30)
Political Environment: 23 (of 40)
Economic Environment: 18 (of 30)
Total Score: 65 (of 100)
(Lower scores = freer)

Malaysian media – traditionally constrained by significant legal restrictions and intimidation – were further restricted in 2007 primarily a result of an escalating crackdown on online media, which has emerged as a primary outlet for free discussion and for exposing cases of political corruption. Meanwhile, the ruling coalition, the Barisan National (BN), invoked traditionally tight restrictions on the mainstream media to prevent coverage of heightened opposition activity toward year's end.

The constitution provides each citizen with "the right to freedom of speech and expression" but allows for limitations on this right. The 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) requires all publishers and printing firms to obtain an annual operations permit and gives the prime minister the authority to revoke licenses at any time without judicial review. The PPPA has been used by authorities to shut down or otherwise circumscribe the distribution of media outlets for material deemed pro-opposition, against the national interest, or "sensitive." The PPPA was invoked in March to threaten the opposition paper Harakah for "violating its permit conditions" after ran a front page story criticizing the prime minister, covering controversial toll hikes, and linking the deputy prime minister to a murder case. In September the Tamil daily Makkal Osai was suspended under the same legislation for publishing materials deemed "harmful to public safety."

The 1988 Broadcasting Act allows the information minister to decide who can own a broadcast station and the type of television service suitable for the Malaysian public. The Official Secrets Act, Sedition Act, and harsh criminal defamation legislation are also used to impose restrictions on the press and other critics and are all punishable by several years in prison. Officials are reluctant to share controversial data and used this restrictive legislation against online media for the first time in 2007 in response to bloggers' and web sites' increasing coverage of corruption cases and other controversial matters. In January, defamation charges were first brought against bloggers, accused of plagiarism against the publisher and editor of the New Straits Times, which enjoys close ties to the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party. In April a BN official brought defamation charges against Malaysiakini, a critical web site, and Nathaniel Tan, another blogger and assistant to the head of the opposition People's Justice Party, was arrested under the OSA in July. Tan was charged in connection with his commentary related to corruption in the country's internal security system and was released after his four-day remand expired.

The threat of expensive defamation suits, sackings, media closures, media bans, and unannounced interrogation by the Ministry of Internal Security for any "mishandling" of information generally inhibit investigative reporting. Moreover, a history of political interference in media coverage of issues considered by the government to be against the national interest or "sensitive" has fostered a culture of self-censorship on the part of traditional media. While there has been somewhat greater criticism of official policy in the mainstream print press in recent years, both the print and broadcast media's news coverage and editorials generally support the government line.

Online journalists have increasingly defied this tradition, however, and in 2007, played a particularly central role in exposing government corruption and covering anti-government protests toward year's end. In addition to using defamation suits and other legalistic means to silence criticism, the government responded by issuing coverage directives to online media for the first time. A July statement by the government explicitly warned that bloggers who write about "sensitive issues" would be charged under the ISA, OSA, and Sedition Act. Newspapers were specifically warned against covering the "rumors" being reported online. In April, Prime Minister Abdullah rejected a proposal that would require bloggers to register with the government but, in June, convened a task force of BN officials to find legislation that could be used to control online content without contradicting the country's Bill of Guarantee Against Internet Censorship.

Further, reporting bans issued in July 2006 in connection with heightened tensions related to matters of race and religion were repeated in July 2007 when the media was prohibited from reporting all negative reactions to the deputy prime minister's assertion that Malaysia has always been an Islamic state. In November, the authorities ordered the mainstream media to refrain from reporting on anti-government rallies and relaying the organizers' statements; according to Malaysia's Center for Investigative Journalism, news coverage of the rallies neglected the anti-government stance while reporting on clashes between participants and the police were biased in favor of the police.

Foreign publications are subject to censorship, and the distribution of issues containing critical articles is frequently delayed The government directly censors books and films for profanity, nudity, and violence as well as certain political and religious material. The Malaysian Film Censorship Unit banned a film about former Malay Muslim members of the Communist Party of Malaysia in February for portraying the Communist struggle as noble. Television stations censor programming according to government guidelines; a talk show was banned for contradicting the values of Islam Hadari advocated by the prime minister in February as well.

A business deal between the Malaysian Chinese Association and media tycoon Tiong Hiew King in October 2006 solidified the monopolization of the Chinese press, with all top four Chinese dailies now concentrated in the hands of a firm political-business alliance. Regional press freedom watchdog groups expressed concern in February 2007 regarding a further consolidation of the Chinese media across countries following a proposed tripartite merger among two Malaysian and one Hong-Kong based media groups, all owned by Tiong. Such a merger would create the largest Chinese publication group outside China and Taiwan.

With 60 percent of the population accessing the internet, online media have helped minimize the government's monopoly of information in the past few years and bolstered the average Malaysian's access to alternative information sources. Moreover, online media proved a crucial organizing tool and means of publicizing the opposition-led and minority-rights demonstrations in November.

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