The Battle to Restore Public Trust in Malaysia’s Media

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The Battle to Restore Public Trust in Malaysia’s Media

A revised code of ethics overseen by the government rightly raises concerns about press freedom in Malaysia. There is an alternative solution.

The Battle to Restore Public Trust in Malaysia’s Media
Credit: Photo by Denissa Devy on Unsplash

In February 2024, the Malaysian government released a revised Journalism Code of Ethics, claiming it was necessary to adapt to the challenges of social media and contemporary issues. The latest revision raises questions regarding its effectiveness and potential impact on press freedom.

The government stressed these were just guidelines and would not restrict freedom of speech but would serve as a basis for the government to give out media passes, allowing journalists access to parliament and official government events.

The code includes some positive and important changes, such as urging journalists to avoid personal biases, respect source confidentiality, and reflect Malaysia’s diverse voices. This focus on inclusivity is particularly timely considering the country’s growing racial tensions.

However, the revised code falls short of addressing the crucial impact of social media. Many newsrooms, facing shrinking resources and pressured to compete with social media, struggle to maintain high journalistic standards.

International codes from established journalism organizations such as the Society for Professional Journalism and the International Federation of Journalists often address these problems by emphasizing the need for careful verification and fact-checking before publishing. The Malaysian code, despite claims to the contrary, lacks these crucial provisions.

The code’s ambiguity also raises concerns about government control. As the basis for issuing media passes, it grants the government significant power to revoke access for perceived violations. This could erode public trust in media outlets deemed to have “broken” the code or those perceived to be favorable toward the government of the day.

The media is struggling to gain the trust of Malaysians partly due to the inconsistent application of journalistic ethics by various outlets. Numerous media associations have their own codes, many of them vague and unenforced.

The lack of trust could also stem from past issues. Years of authoritarian rule under Barisan Nasional resulted in restrictive media laws, political control of private outlets, and harassment of journalists (the most infamous was the Ops Lalang). For too long, political interference in the media has affected not just the quality of news but also the public’s trust in the media.

The key to rebuilding trust lies in reducing government influence and allowing the media to self-regulate.

In 2019, the Malaysian government under Pakatan Harapan announced it was planning to form a media council and allow Malaysian media to self-regulate. This council has been subject to some serious setbacks, with little progress in its development. The first proposal will finally be ready to be tabled in parliament next month. If the proposed council does get instituted, then it would have its own code of ethics to regulate and manage local media, causing further confusion and redundancy with the new code of ethics.

A journalism code of ethics cannot be enforced by a government as it grants that government undue control over journalists and stifles scrutiny. A well-designed code of ethics agreed between media outlets themselves can still be enforced and raise journalism standards; media outlets can publicly chastise any outlet that breaches the code of ethics.

So, for the Malaysian media to save itself, it must actively push for the formation of an independent media council and a robust code of ethics. This code should clearly define journalists’ roles and responsibilities and be enforceable by the council itself. Membership could include journalists and representatives from civil society and government, to ensure every segment of Malaysian society is involved.

Malaysia’s media faces an uphill battle to regain the trust of the public, but creating a body to oversee ethics is an important and necessary first step.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.