The Malaysian government plans to give opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s political party a permit to start its own newspaper as part of reforms to allow more press freedom, according to news reports yesterday.
The Star daily quoted Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar as saying there was no reason the People’s Justice Party should not have its own newspaper when other political parties do.
“I’ve just approved the [People’s Justice Party] newspaper and I asked my officers ‘why not.’ I am open about it,” he was quoted as saying.
Syed Hamid’s office was closed for the weekend and could not be reached to confirm the report. Anwar’s party spokesman also could not immediately be reached for comment.
Media organizations in Malaysia can operate only with a government license, which needs to be renewed every year. This has resulted in self-censorship by editors who want to avoid the possibility of their license not being renewed.
“I want to change that paradigm,” Syed Hamid was quoted as saying. “We are not trying to control you, but we want everyone to contribute to the nation-building process.”
He said he was toying with the idea of doing away with annual licensing and switching to licenses that only need to be issued once.
“For me the bottom line is that we need press freedom in order for us to have a check and balance in government,” Syed Hamid was quoted as saying.
The announcement came days after the government suspended the license of a Tamil-language newspaper, which catered to some of Malaysia’s ethnic Indians, accusing it of fomenting racial tensions.
The crackdown against the Makkal Osai, or People’s Voice, was slammed by critics as a blow to press freedom in the country. Syed Hamid, however, defended the move, saying the newspaper had breached the government’s media guidelines.
Those guidelines include keeping silent on issues that can stir racial tensions in the country, a multiethnic nation comprising majority Malay Muslims and minority Chinese and Indians.