BEFORE the tabling of Budget 2021, Parliament issued a notice that only 15 media agencies were allowed to attend and report on the budget, including Berita Harian and Astro Awani.According to them, the decision was made with Covid-19 in mind and in line with the SOP set by the Health Ministry and National Security Council.Following that, Lembah Pantai MP Fahmi Fadzril questioned why there was a limit to the number of agencies.Speaker Azhar Harun answered that physical distancing would be undoable if the media room was too crowded.He added that they were not restricting media freedom. “People say we blocked (the media) but we didn’t. If we did, we won’t even allow any media agencies at all,” he told the Dewan Rakyat.Other measures could have taken place instead of deliberately limiting media organisations at the session.Parliament could have taken a different route and decided on ways that benefitted everyone. A safe environment for the media could be created by converting unused rooms in the Parliament into media rooms.This way, representatives from more media organisations could attend and report on the tabling. Regulations would be adhered to, since physical distancing was possible.However, online news portals were mostly sidelined. This raises the question of how the 15 media agencies were specifically chosen.Parliament’s action proves an attempt to restrict press freedom. It undermined the media’s rights and press pluralism. It reflected their desire to control who and how information about Budget 2021 was made available to.Since the budget affected everyone, Malaysians should receive news regarding it from unbiased perspectives to form their own opinions on the situation.Media freedom has been restricted ever since the Perikatan Nasional government took over in March.Journalist Tashny Sukumaran, a correspondent of the South China Morning Post, was charged with criminal defamation after writing about the arrest of undocumented migrants.Cynthia Gabriel, the founding director of Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism, was interrogated by the police regarding a public letter that she wrote, urging the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission to examine claims about the government.Laws like the Communications and Multimedia Act and the Sedition Act have been continually abused by the government to silence political dissent, with the basis of Covid-19 as an excuse.PN should allow for holistic reporting from the media. Instead of shrinking media spaces and using the law to penalise the media under the pretence of “information that threatens national security”, especially in these dire times, let media agencies have freedom of reporting.Malaysia’s press freedom index, monitored by Reporters Without Borders, has been consistently improving.The country saw a jump, rising from No. 123 in 2019 to No. 101 in 2020. This is commendable, but can a better ranking really be guaranteed in 2021? – December 23, 2020.* Farah Maria Mohamed Napi reads The Malaysian Insight. * This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.
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