Speech by Parliamentary Opposition Leader, DAP Secretary-General and Mp for Kota Melaka, Lim Kit Siang, on the Printing Presses and Publications 1984 Bill in the Dewan Rakyat on Tuesday, March 27.3.1984.
Printing Presses and Publications Bill unconstitutional, undemocratic and a grave denial of the human right of Malaysians to freedom of expression, press and information.
When the 2M leadership came into power in July 1981, they promised Malaysians a liberal, open and democratic government and society. In the last 32 months of office of the 2M government, the promise of an open, liberal and democratic government has not been fulfilled.
In some respect, the 2M government in proving to be less open, liberal and democratic than previous administrations, as in its attitude towards the principle of public accountability in the case of the $2,500 million Bumiputra Malaysia Finance loans scandal in Hong Kong as compared to the $150 million Bank Rakyat scandal of the late 1970s; the cynical double-standards in the applications of the laws of the land, as in the holding of illegal public rallies by the UMNO all over the country during the Constitutional Crisis; the flagrant disregard for the responsibilities and role of Parliament as the highest legislative and political chamber in the country and the amendment to the Official Secrets Act to make the government more secretive and unaccountable to the people.
The introduction of the Printing Presses and publications Bill marks the height of the illiberal, undemocratic and authoritarian nature of the 2M government, for what we are presently debating is not merely about printing presses and publications, but in fact defining the very nature and basis of the Malaysian political polity, whether we want an open, liberal and democratic Malaysia or a closed, repressive and authoritarian Malaysia.
In the DAP’s view, the Printing Presses and Publications Bill is highly objectionable and obnoxious on three grounds, that it is undemocratic, unconstitutional and a grave denial of the human right of Malaysians to freedom of expression, press and information.
In fact, with the withdrawal of the constitutional amendments at the January special sitting of Parliament on Article 150 of the Malaysian Constitution which would confer on the Prime Minister the sole and unquestionable power to declare an Emergency, the Printing Presses and Publications to democracy in Malaysia.
The 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Bill is not mercy a consolidation of the Printing Presses 1948 and the Control of Imported Publication Act 1958, but arms the government with new and vast powers to trample on the/rights of Malaysians to freedom of expression, press /human and information.
It has become fashion of the day for the 2M government to decry the British colonial experience, but its remains fully committed to uphold perpetuate and even refine the methods of political control exercised by the British colonial government over a subject population, although we have liberated ourselves from colonial rule nearly three decades ago, and prides ourselves not only being free and independent, but following a system of parliamentary democracy.
This is probably what the 2M government means by Parliamentary democracy ala Malaysia as distinct from Westminster, where we apply the methods of political control meant for colonized territories to keep the local populace in subjection to the colonial masters, instead of upholding the democratic principle and respecting the human rights of Malaysians as befitting a meaningful parliamentary democracy.
The Printing Presses Act 1984 was first enacted in July 1984, a month after the armed insurrection of the Malayan Communist Party, as part of the armoury of extraordinary situation following the declaration of the first Emergency in June 1948.
There should be two good reasons to repeal or water down the authoritarian powers which the Printing Presses Act 1984 confer on the government to deny the basic human right of freedom of expression, press and information,.
Firstly, we are an independent nation which should have a freer political society than during the British colonial times. Secondly, powers assumed by the government during Emergency to deal with an extraordinary situation threatening the security of the nation should be relinquished when the country has returned to normalcy. Surely, no one in the Barisan Nasional would seriously suggest that our national situation is no better than the 1948 days.
Unfortunately, we are asked not to repeal or water down the undemocratic and authoritarian features of the printing presses and publications laws, but to make them even more repressive and authoritarian, to make greater inroads on the human rights of expression, press amd information in Malaysia.
The Malaysian Government is an supporter in world forums in the campaign for a New World Information and Communication Order based on the/UNESCO COMMISSION headed by Sean MacBride / Report of the entitled ‘Many Voices, One World’ which studies the ‘totality of communications problems in modern societies’. But the Malaysian Government should realize that the MacBride Commission dealt not only with the problem of the unequal dominance of news and information between countries, especially the industrialised countries and the Third World, but also within countries themselves.
We should heed the strident defence for freedom of expression by the MacBride Commission Report, which said:
“The presence or absence of freedom of expression is one of the most reliable indications of freedom in all its aspects in any nation. Today, in many countries throughout the world, freedom is still trampled upon and violated by bureaucratic or commercial censorship, by the intimidation and punishment of its devotees, and by the enforcement of uniformity. The fact that there is said to be freedom of expression in a country does not guarantee its existence in practice. The simultaneous existence of other freedoms (freedom of association, freedom to assemble and to demonstrate for redress of grievances, freedom to join trade unions) are all essential components if man’s right to communicate. Any obstacle to these freedoms results in suppression of freedom of expression.”
Part 2 of the Malaysian Constitution proclaims ‘freedom of speech as a fundamental liberty’, that “every citizen has the right to freedom of speech and expression”, but immediately qualifies away this human right by providing that Parliament may by law impose restriction on it.
As the Printing Presses and Publications Bill 1984 is a serious derogation ad erosion of the fundamental liberty and human rights of freedom of expression, Parliament should review the entire status of freedom of expression in our country and its compatibility with the democratic principles we profess to uphold in our political system.
We must ask ourselves whether we have freedom of expression in practice, or whether it is merely at the proclamation level. The Soviet Union, for instance, specifically guarantees the freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly including the holding of mass meetings, and the freedom of street processions and demonstrations in Article 125. We must not end up like the Soviet Union where such freedoms are only to be found in the Constitution.
We must nurture the growth of the tradition of free expression and not stultify it as we would do if we enact the Printing Presses and Publications Bills 1984. The rationale for the human right of freedom of expression and the operation of free press is that in human society, no single person or institution, including the government, could claim monopoly to the truth or to the best vision for the society. This would negate the very basis of a democratic polity, for it would be an authoritarian or totalitarian model and not a democratic one.
The truth and the best vision for a society must be found from the interplay of ideas of the members of the society, which presupposes the existence of freedom of expression as well as freedom of the press which recognizes the right of every person to receive, seek and impart information, ideas and opinions. An indispensable third element of the freedom of expression / of information – i.e. the right of a citizen / freedom to be kept informed of whatever might affect his daily life, help him to make decisions and contribute to his thinking.
The freedom of information of Malaysians was undermined by the amendment to the Official Secrets Act last year, and now with this Bill, all triple aspects of the freedom of expression, press and information come under assault.
Just before he became Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamed, wrote an article in a local press entitled “The Freedom of the Press – Fact and Fallacy” where he defended government censorship and dealt at length on the dangers of an irresponsible press.
I fully agree that the freedom of the press does not mean the licence to be irresponsible and that the press which transgresses the law should face the full rigours of the law in the Courts whether for defamation or sedition, for what we want is a free and responsible press.
But what we object strenuously is any form of government censorship which seeks to impose one form of truth or vision, as reflected in the statement by the Deputy Minister for Home Affairs, Mohamed Kassim Ahmad, when commenting in the Bill in the New Straits Times article of 21st March 1984:
“We are not curtailing their (the people’s) reading; we want them to read as much as possible. But the people know which magazine the Government doesn’t like. They must be vigilant and discard publications which are not in accord with the Government vision.”
By this guideline, the people know for instance that the magazine at present which the government does not like is the Far Eastern Economic Review, which is being held up by more than a month in back issues, clearly as a punishment for the FEER coverage of the Bank Bumiputra Malaysia Finance scandal and the Constitutional Crisis last year.
Clearly, the FEER’s reportage of the BMF scandal and the Constitutional Crisis did not accord with the Government’s ‘vision.’ In fact, its coverage of the Constitutional crises also flouted the Prime Ministers’ directive to the press to black out all reporting on the Constitutional Amendment Bill which was adopted by both Houses of Parliament in August last year, and which triggered off the constitutional crisis.
We may ask here what right the Prime Minister had to order the press to black out all parliamentary debates on the Constitution Amendment Bill last August touching the controversial provisions, for this negates the Prime Minister’s assertion of the supremacy of people’s will as embodied by Parliament-when the Prime Minister could supersede Parliament by interposing his will to black out parliamentary proceedings in the press without Parliamentary consent.
But the crucial question for a democratic society is whether any one has the right to impose his vision or viewpoint to the suppression of all others, as is being proposed in this Bill which empowers the censorship of publications which do not accord with the vision of those in power n government.
It is a sad commentary on the state of press freedom in Malaysia that Malaysian have come to expect and depend on foreign publications and magazines for information and news about Malaysia. Thus, the first press to break the story of the BMF scandal was the Asian Wall Street Journal, which carried several articles of expose of the BMF dealings reeking with impropriety as far back as the end of 1982, but which were ignored by the local press.
The first time Malaysians knew that there was a constitutional crisis involving the Rulers and the Prime Minister over the constitutional amendments was also in the foreign press and magazines.
Previously, articles about the financial and commercial world, including some dubious transactions involving personalities with high political connections, were also reported in the foreign press.
These may embarrass the political and corporate leaders of Malaysia, but they are no justification for the wide-ranging censorship powers demanded by the Government in the Printing Presses and Publications Bill. Before Barisan backbenchers embark on a sterile debate on whether the Bill provides for censorship, let me make it clear that both pre-publication as well as post-publication and post-distribution restrictions are universally accepted as forms of press censorship, as amply provided by this Bill as I would sow later.
If the foreign press or magazine had committed any criminal or civil offences, then they should be taken to court instead of/resorting to all-encompassing powers of censorship.
In view of Bill’s grave encroachments on the basic human rights of freedom of expression, press and information, the DAP proposes that this Bill should be referred to a Select Committee for deeper study and for hearing representations from interested groups, the press, journalists and the public. It is another sad commentary on the state of press freedom in Malaysia that the local press seems to have steered clear of Bill in their editorials and comments, when they should be the first to be react.
The Select Committee should consider whether the structures of press control and press censorship, like the annual licensing of newspapers which act as the Sword of Damocles over the newspapers, should be dismantled as these are colonial fetters to control a subject people and which an independent nation should whose people are free and live in democratic society must distinguish from a society of colonial subjection. Unless with Merdeka in 1957, the people are merely exchanging one form of subjection for another.
On the approach of the 30th anniversary of our Merdeka, we should go one step further. A Royal Commission on Freedom of Expression, press and Information should be set up to study and recommend how these freedoms could be made more meaningful for all Malaysian citizens so as to strengthen the democratic institutions in the country.
This is because there are many areas pertaining to freedom of expression, press and information which deserves an in-depth inquiry. The monopoly of certain local press, and in particular the political party ownership and control of national dailies, the denial of access for all opinions and ideas in the local press, all deserve special study if we really cherish democratic institutions and the basic human rights of Malaysians.
Printing Presses Publications Bill 1984 Unconstitutional
I have said earlier that the Printing Presses Publications Bill 1984 is unconstitutional. This is because it contravenes Article 10 of the Constitution, which reads:
“10. (1) Subject to Clauses (2)….
(a) every citizen has the right to freedom of speech and expression;
(2) Parliament may by law impose –
(a) on the rights conferred by paragraph (a) of Clauses (1) such restrictions as it deems necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of the Federation or any part thereof, friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality and restrictions designed to protect the privileges of Parliament or of any Legislative Assembly or to provide against contempt of court, defamation or incitement to any offence.”
Clause 7(1) of the Printing Presses Publications Bill 1984 empowers the Minister ‘if satisfied‘ that ant publication ‘is in any manner prejudicial to or likely to be prejudicial to public order, morality, security, the relationship with any foreign country or government, or which is or is likely to be contrary to any law or is otherwise prejudicial to or is likely to be prejudicial o public interest or national interest‘ he may in his absolute discretion prohibit it with or without conditions.
Parliament should be most meticulous in enacting any legislation which violates either in spirit or letter the fundamental liberties in the Constitution- especially by inadvertence or carelessness or indifference.
I have said earlier that the freedom of expression principle must embrace the concept of freedom of press and information if it is not to be reduced into a meaningless phrase. However, even without stretching the principle of freedom of expression to the related concepts of freedom of press and information, the banning of publications is clearly a restriction on freedom of expression.
Article 10 provides for six situations where restrictions on freedom of expression could be imposed, namely, in the interest of the security of the Federation or any part thereof, friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality, etc., but it does not include ‘public interest or national interest’ as in Section 7(1) of the Bill.
Without a similar amendment to Article 10(2)(a), the Government is asking the Parliament to do an unconstitutional act, in expanding the scope of Parliament to restrict the fundamental liberty of freedom of speech and expression.
The phrases of ‘public interest or national interest’ are open to great abuse, for it could depend solely on the subjective whims and fancies of the Minister concerned.
Thus, would the publication of the BMF scandal stories or the constitutional crisis development last year be ‘prejudicial or is likely to be prejudicial to public interest or national interest’ and justify a prohibitory order by the Minister against the publication concerned?
Recently, Ministerial voices are being heard that the New Economic Policy and the National Culture Policy could not be questioned, and the virtual labeling of those who question both as ‘anti-national’ elements.
Would the publication of articles or stories which question the New Economic Policy and the National Culture Policy be ‘prejudicial or likely to be prejudicial to public interest or national interest’ and justify a prohibitory order by the Minister?
Recently, some Ministers had been very quickly in condemning critics of the most heinous crimes for disagreeing with the Government.
For instance, Malaysia Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tan Sri. Dr. Tan Chee Khoon had even been accused of ‘journalistic subversion’ by the Minister of Information, Adib Adam. Surely, this form of ‘journalistic crime’ must be ‘prejudicial or likely to be prejudicial to public interest or national interest.’
Whether for local press or foreign press, the best way to correct false or misleading reports or views is to counters them by presenting the full facts and arguments to be judgement of the people. The suppression of contrary views, facts and ideas would only spawn an underground press, which is turn would lead to strengthening of the powers of suppression and periodic witch-hunts which would do untold harm to the democratic experiment in Malaysia.
Clause 7(1) is one example where is the consolidation of the Printing Presses Act 1948 and the Control of Imported Publications 1958, the government has taken the opportunity to arm itself with greater powers of repression of free flow of information, ideas and opinions.
Another is Clause 7(2)(d) which empowers the Minister to requite the publisher of an imported publication which can afoul of Clause 7(1) to make such deposits of such amount and in such manner as may be prescribed. This deposit may be forfeited by the Minister if the publisher contravened the Act or any rules or order or condition of the license or permit law relating to sedition or defamation.
This section seems to provide for a double penalty for publishers, in that after being sued and playing damages for defamation, the Minister could still use the fact of the defamation suit to forfeit the deposit. What can be the justification for this?
The deposit provision is the most dangerous weapon in the hands of the Government to sanitise to the its desire foreign reports on Malaysia. This is because the deposit could range from a few thousand dollars to a crippling some of a million dollars. In a fast shrinking world, the segregation of Malaysians from an interchange with international ideas and views is most short-sighted and unproductive, and I seriously call on the Government to withdrawal the deposit provision.
This ‘deposit’ provision is not confined to imported publications only. Under Section 10, the requirement for a deposit could be extended to anyone for any licence or permit under the Act, which could be forfeited upon the commission of any offence under the Act or any rule made thereunder or In the event of breach of any condition of the licence.
This means the local publishers of newspaper and proprietors of printing presses could be required to put up a deposit, which would be highly onerous on small-time operators, and in particular opposition or dissent publications. This provision would then become another government instrument to erode the freedom of expression, press and information.
Schedule I of the Act defined a printing press which must be licenced, and for which a deposit could be required, as any printing process capable of printing at a rate of 1,000 impressions per hour or more. I understand any reputable copying machine or cyclostyle machine is capable of printing 1,000 impressions per hour. Does this mean that every one of these copying and cyclostyle machine had to be licensed under 3 of Act? I hope the Minister concerned would give a clarification in his reply, for this seems to represent another serious intrusion by government to extend its tentacles of control over the people.
The government has also taken the opportunity of the consolidation to expand its powers of control over printing and publication by providing under Section 3(3) and 12(1) that both printing and newspaper licences and permits could be issued for shorter periods from the full year, as is the case in present legislation.
It is public knowledge that during the last two months of each year, when the newspaper KDNs await renewal, the newspaper are particularly obedient and timid for fear of difficulties over renewal. Now, with KDNs which could be issued for shorter spans as six months or three months, the government’s control over the newspaper and periodicals would be strengthened.
The renewal requirement for newspapers and KDNs for periodicals should be removed altogether, and replaced by a system whereby a KDN is valid so long as it had not been revoked or suspended.
Another objectionable feature of the Bill is the enhancement of penalties for offences as compared to the present legislation, generally from $2,000 fine and one or two years jail sentence to $20,000 fine or three year jail sentence.
A noteworthy feature of the Bill is the removal of provisions in the Printing Presses Act 1948 whereby they could be appeals to the Minister’s decision on the refusal, withdrawal of printing licence (Sec.3(3)) or the imposition of conditions in newspaper permits (Sec.7(6)) or the grant, refusal or revocation of a permit for sale and distribution of West Malaysia and Singapore publications under Section 7A(7) to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.
In the 1970s, there appear to be a tendency to provide for final appeals to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong or final decision to be taken by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong in government legislation, but we seemed to have entered a new phase in the 1980s where the government wants to remove such provisions.
Be that as it may, the larger implications of the Printing Presses and Publications Bills 1984 should concern all MPs and Malaysian who want to see a progressive development of a more democratic Malaysia, instead of a retrogression to a authoritarian and repressive period as foreshadowed by this Bill.