Freedom of Expression: Interview with Gayathri
Director: Namita A. Malhotra, Subasri Krishnan
Duration: 00:17:28; Aspect Ratio: 1.821:1; Hue: 31.411; Saturation: 0.230; Lightness: 0.396; Volume: 0.098; Cuts per Minute: 0.344; Words per Minute: 104.998
Namita: Just want to look at the scene around mainstream media and alternative media + legal picture on bloggers
Namita: Can you tell us your name, a little bit about yourself and where you work?
GV: I'm Gayatri Venkateshwaran, the Executive Director of the Centre for Independent Journalism. This is an NGO that works on issues of freedom of expression. We started as an organization to do online radio and in the process we discovered that there are far more challenges to the work of journalists and expression and so we moved on towards advocacy and that's what we focus on today; on trying to get law reforms on freedom of expression, so that's been our focus for the last 3 or 4 years. And using community radio to illustrate the problems of media ownership, monopoly, concentration of media. So we try to tie in all of these and put a big picture of what is freedom of expression in Malaysia.
Namita: Since the last year there's been a lot of controversy around blogging in Malaysia, intimidation. Yet it is in a context where the Malaysian government says there is no law for the censorship of the internet, yet this is happening. These people are also picked up for sedition, official secrets act, can you tell us a bit about that?
GV: Yeah, When the PM, two PMs ago, was a big advocate of the multi-media super corridor and technology advancement in IT. All in all it's an attempt to lure investors. We're investor driven in terms of the economy. So in assuring that part of the space that's provided, that in the development of internet technology, there is not going to be censorship. So, the Bill of Guarantees actually says that there is no censorship. And one of the laws that came out of that is the Communications and Multimedia Act. What is important to see in the Act, is that it states that, nothing in this Act shall be construed as censorship. I think, that's the really the key to the whole thing because it limits the freedom of expression in the web-space. To what is contained in the Communications and Multimedia Act. So that means that other laws can still be used on content regulation, practices, things like that. [INTERRUPTION]
GV: So basically, the other laws that are applicable for any content, will include the Sedition Act 1948, the Official Secrets Act from 1972, another pre-independence act is the Printing Presses and Publications Act, which is not used so much for online content but often we see that content which is re-published as materials that you can distribute then that will come under the purview of the Printing presses and publications Act. Internal security act, that's also applicable. And then criminal defamation cuts across medium. So, despite the Communications and Multimedia Act having its so called superiority, its actually an inferior act.
GV: On many levels, it's a weak law because its commercial driven, it's not at all citizen driven in that sense. It talks about keeping monopoly in check but there's no indication of how you can do that. So there's big monopolies in terms of content, telecommunications. It contains a provision that says that authorities can arrest you, its punishable if you actually produce, distribute content that has the potential to annoy! I get annoyed all the time, so where do you set the limits? So annoy, incite, very broad definition of it. So what we have seen in the last 2 or 3 years, actually even 2003, is that the authorities do not use the Communications and Multimedia Act as much as they use the penal code, the sedition act.
GV: And the government keeps reiterating that no one is above the law and says that just because you are online, you do not have this immunity. But for us it is problematic, because it is genuine expression, on political issues, governance issues and issues about relationships between different ethnic groups. These are genuine national issues. These are coming under the purviews of the law and its very worrying because, we are not saying that if you're online, you're immune. We're not saying that but it adds another space, which is coming under severe censorship.
Namita: How would you describe the Malaysian media scene?
GV: the Malaysian media is pretty much controlled by the State. Even though they are owned by private entities, it is so linked to the political powers that all the channels are available for the political control of the media. This kind of control goes far back but I think 1961 is the start of the political party ownership of a newspaper in the ruling government. And this more or less set the trend for the ruling government. So it wasn't just the government telling you what to do but the political government actually owns you. In the process we have seen, because of the issues of insecurity, ethnic tensions and our paranoia about communists until today... we have paranoia about so many things [INTERRUPTION]
GV: ...paranoia about some unidentified bogeyman somewhere, so the government actively use the laws to curb dissent, to curb critical content. In 1987 for example, it was a very tense moment, so many isssues at that time, the governemnt used the internal security act to arrest over 100 people, 3 newspapers were suspended for 3 months. That remains as one of the biggest fears for the editors in the newsrooms, do we want 1987 to repeat. That comes out all the time, so we play safe. The PM's office has a meeting with the editors every month, and in those meetings, sometimes casually, sometimes in stern warnings, it's interesting to see what they see as difficult or sensational issues – what should be downplayed or highlighted.
GV: It can range from the sex scandal that one of our ministers had been involved in, to the relationship between Malaysia and Indonesia, which is a very hot issue, the Hayes' report...there was a big demonstration in 2007, and the govt said please, play it down and 2 weeks later they were asking the editors, why did they play it down because we looked so stupid! So it's really endless in terms of their warnings. But along the way, self censorship has also become part of the game that the editors play. So it ranges from the kind of ownership that we have to the direct political instructions, censorship also within the newsroom.
GV: Because, we want to keep the newspapers running and we don't want to take these risks, so we black out stories that we think that the government will be unhappy about. So all of it produces very bad journalism in Malaysia. We've had that for a long time now, we do not have a media that is critical, or tells the truth, what we're getting, I would term them as lies because they're not daring enough to present truth as it is. So this has spurred a lot of people to look for alternate sources of information. Because they're so fed up with the media.
GV: And online is the space, online media, bloggers who have the inside information and managed to get a lot of followers who felt that 'this is what happens in the government, really?' and getting people to ask the questions. You get a lot of crap on the blogs but many do try to get people to ask the questions. So people have more faith in the bloggers than the journalists and that's really something that the media has to think about. They're losing the credibility which they cannot afford to.
Namita: There is quandary about blogs... what do you think?
GV: I think as a society we need to learn together what this technology is about, what the space is all about. At the same time remembering what the media function, role is in society. I tell many people that you have a choice in selecting your information. No on is stuffing it down your throat, so if you don't like a particular newspaper, you don't have to subscribe, unfortunately for us, they all look the same! So you end up not wanting to read anything. But when it comes to the blogs, you do have a choice – don't visit it anymore. I don't want to give it credilbilty.
GV: I think there are many ways now in which it can be self regulated as well. You can rank blogs, have understanding among bloggers about the space to use as to discuss issues, it's not for us to violate people's privacy. We need to identify what the technology allows us to do. On the question of privacy, unfortunately we do have many examples of how technology has violated that personal space and its not always online. I think telephones, we have traditional violations of privacy as well. So for me, it is not a problem online, it is a societal problem.
GV: A fact that we may be tolerating violation of privacy at all levels, and that's a problem. So simple things like your personal information is actually available to companies who use it for marketing purpose, but we don't say anything about that. To me that;s what we have to learn, and understand that it is not the technology that we are attacking but it's the culture. For me, it's a much bigger issue, we have seen how SMSs, MMSs, video sharing do violate people's privacy. So it's about educating society on that. So it's not just that we target online and the problem is solved.
GV: The other issue is also about, people understanding what is access to information and what is right to privacy. I think in the case of the elected representative, Elisabeth Wong, some people may have been interested, but it's not in public interest and we need to make that distinction very clearly. It is a question of privacy and I think many of us see it as a politically motivated exposure or someone who was very very irresponsible. We have to put it in that frame and we need to learn to say that we reject this kind of manipulation, exposure, disrespect for women, disrespect for peoples' right to privacy.
GV: We need to learn about that and we need to say that we need more information about governance and we don't need to know what people wear in their bedrooms! That's not what we are interested in. For me, I see it as an opportunity to engage people to talk about these things. Unfortunate for the people who are involved, it's a way to tell people, to learn to differentiate between technology, content, politics and just our culture. We're not very good at defending peoples' rights to privacy, we're also not good at defending peoples' right to expression. We really have a lot to learn in that sense. It's a balancing act as well, to know when it is public interest and when it is the right of the individual per se.