October 4, 2012
In Malaysia, Court Backs Right to Print a Newspaper
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Obtaining permission to publish a newspaper in Malaysia, where the print media are dominated by government-linked publications, is likely to become easier after a court ruled that the right to freedom of expression includes the right to publish and is a fundamental liberty, a lawyer said on Tuesday.
A Malaysian court ruled on Monday that the government should not have rejected an application for a print publishing license by Malaysiakini, a popular independent news Web site, said Shanmuga Kanesalingam, a lawyer who represented Malaysiakini. Under Malaysian law, a newspaper must obtain a permit from the government before it can publish.
Free-speech advocates hailed the decision as a victory. “Recognition that the right to publish a newspaper is a fundamental right is very, very significant,” Mr. Shanmuga said. “It’s the first time we’ve had this said by a judge.”
Masjaliza Hamzah (right), executive officer of the Center for Independent Journalism in Kuala Lumpur, described the decision as “a very progressive judgment for freedom of expression, for freedom of the press in Malaysia.”
“It’s very significant,” she said, because few new permits for print newspapers have been granted in recent years.The permits that have been given out are mostly for small-scale publications, but not for the kind of publication that could garner a national audience, which Malaysiakini could,” Ms. Masjaliza said.
The government has not yet decided whether to appeal the decision, said Noor Hisham bin Ismail, a senior federal counsel involved in the case. It has a month to file.
Although the Internet has remained relatively free in Malaysia, most large newspapers are either owned by the government or linked to it.
He said the ruling would make it more difficult for the government to refuse an application for a printing license, because it requires officials to show that the proposed publication would be a threat to public order or to national security, or would be immoral.
Premesh Chandran , co-founder and chief executive of Malaysiakini, said he hoped the company’s application for a license would now be approved, although he expected the government to appeal.
He said Malaysiakini, which attracts about 400,000 online readers a day and has sections in English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil, wanted to publish an English-language newspaper to reach the many Malaysians who still receive the news through print.
Ms. Masjaliza from the Center for Independent Journalism, said it was difficult to predict whether the ruling would lead to a rush of applications for printing licenses, because printing a newspaper still requires a large amount of capital.
But many Malaysians, particularly those in rural areas, still rely on print, she said, and a new newspaper could challenge the dominance of the government-linked media in those areas.
“If a newspaper launched that is targeted toward the Malay hinterland,” she said, “it would have a huge impact in terms of the kind of information people get, which has more diversity of opinions, which has more space being given to multiple political actors and political parties.”
Amendments made this year to the Printing Presses and Publications Act allow a company whose application for a publishing license has been rejected to appeal to the courts for the decision to be reviewed. Previously, Ms. Masjaliza said, these companies had no legal recourse.
A version of this article appeared in print on October 3, 2012, on page B3 of the New York edition with the headline: In Malaysia, Court Backs Right to Print A Newspaper.