KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia ranked 73rd in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, up 40 places from 113 in the previous year.

It marks the highest rank ever attained by the country, remaining at the top among ASEAN countries for the second year in a row.

Wathshlah Naidu, Executive Director of the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) said Malaysia’s positive performance was reflective of the media environment last year.

However, she warned against making comparisons with other ASEAN countries such as Myanmar and Vietnam, which placed 173 and 178 respectively.

“These are countries with between 40 to 70 journalists or media workers in prison under harsh conditions. Myanmar also has a report of four journalists being killed.,” she told Astro AWANI.

Instead, she urged the government to compare Malaysia with countries within the top 10, among which are Norway and Timor-Leste.

With a fellow Southeast Asian democracy ranking in the top tier, Wathshlah said it was possible for Malaysia to move forward and develop a more progressive environment to protect the rights of the media.

Following the change of government after the 15th General Elections, she noted that there had been more “access and open engagement” among media practitioners.

“We are also seeing this commitment with the willingness to push ahead with the establishment of the Media Council.

“This is going to be critical because we’ve been talking about this council for the last 50 years.”

Communications and Digital Minister Fahmi Fadzil previously revealed that his ministry was engaging with media practitioners and studying the Malaysian Media Council draft bill before presenting it to the Cabinet.

He also announced that talks would be expedited between the government and journalists ahead of National Journalists Day (Hawana) set to take place later in the month. The discussions are expected to cover the economics of the new media landscape and journalistic ethics, among others.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim said the government was committed to upholding freedom of the press.

Building a sustainable media environment

Despite the positive developments, Wathshlah pointed out that Putrajaya had failed to keep its promises when it came to reviewing or repealing restrictive laws.

Home Minister Datuk Seri Saifuddin said last month that the government had no plans to revoke the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) 1984 and Sedition Act 1948 as they were still essential for preserving public peace and security.

“These are the exact laws which were under the election manifesto of the Pakatan Harapan coalition. The inconsistencies in how they are addressing the need for reform sets a trend that can pose a challenge to media freedom,” said Wathshlah.

In conjunction with the 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day, she called for a comprehensive review of all laws that were often used to silence the media.

Beyond the PPPA and Sedition Act, she said it also included Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act, along with various other provisions under the Penal Code.

There was also a need for the government to create a more enabling media environment which also addressed economic threats to the media.

“The government needs to push ahead with a review and reform around labour challenges experienced by the media. Issues around job security, access to social benefits, promotion, the glass ceiling experienced by women journalists, for example.”

Wathshlah added that it was critical to strengthen the security and safety of journalists, in light of emerging virtual threats such as trolling, online harassment and doxxing that come with the growing popularity of social media.

“We really cannot undermine the role of the media, because this is the role that brings about the push for transparency, accountability and making sure that we as the public are always kept informed.”