Garvey: Giving freedom voice half a world away

On May 10, fellow Western student Emily Fister and I jumped into a whirlwind of social and political developments that is Malaysia. Our internship with the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) helped us become acquainted with the unfamiliar place.

Kuala Lumpur is the capital of Malaysia, a somewhat hidden Southeast Asian country between the ever-more-popular tourist destinations of Thailand and Indonesia. Our first debriefing at CIJ had us gasping for air as we received a history of the politic and media scenario. Malaysia, a commonwealth nation, is a federal constitutional monarchy and underlying the beautiful multicultural state is a complex blend of politics, religion and race, which plays a significant role in every aspect of Malaysian life. This is important for us because we arrived just after an annual, controversial rally called Bersih 3.0.

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GARVEY

This peaceful rally broke records as 30,000-50,000 people congregated around the cordoned-off Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) demanding ‘clean and fair elections.’ The country has come a long way since independence in 1957, but as we are witnessing firsthand, they still have quite far to go.

For example, laws like the recently repealed ISA (Internal Secrets Act of 1960), now known as the Security Offences (Special Measures) Bill 2012, allow anyone to be arbitrarily detained for speaking an “official secret.” The problem is that no one knows what the “official secrets” are.

Along with sedition and strict publication laws, the most recent challenge to freedom of expression in Malaysia is the recent amendment to an old law known as the Evidence Act.

And this is where we come in.

It is impossible to narrow down the millions of explanations behind why people choose to travel abroad, but needless to say Emily and I are here (recently accompanied by fellow Western student Francine Navarro) interning for credits toward our Media and the Public Interest degree at Western.

We frequently run into backpackers and locals alike who ask us, “Malaysia for four months, but why?”

Admittedly, we sometimes wonder the same thing. But, as we’ve discovered being submersed in a new culture, working, living, exploring and eating here every day is a new and refreshing way to get a real satisfying taste of another life, Malaysian life. I have come to appreciate the differences and similarities between Malaysia and Canada; but the most shocking thing so far has been to learn that it is not as different here as I would have thought.

CIJ is a well-respected organization in the Malaysian media community. Combining our passion for critical media studies and politics, we are able to witness and participate in challenges Malaysians reckon with every day. And of course, we get to try and help resolve these challenges.

CIJ, a non-profit NGO, works to attain free and fair media across the country while promoting freedom of expression in Malaysia. In a highly restrictive media environment, CIJ works against the grains of suppression to change the media landscape.

A current project fights for Internet freedom in Malaysia.

Malaysia is in a transitory process where the people are practicing an increasingly vocal role in a democracy. However, the Printing Presses and Publications Act allows the government to administer printing licenses fostering a self-censoring, cautious and biased media environment; one that CIJ is determined to eliminate. The Internet is an interesting addition to this mix because the government has a harder time monitoring and enforcing published material.

This is where the new amendments to the evidence act come into play.

The recently passed Evidence Amendment (No. 2) Act 2012 poses serious repercussions on Internet freedom. It presumes guilt in users and makes Internet intermediaries – parties that provide online community forums, blogging and hosting services – liable for content that is published through its services.

It reduces the opportunity of anonymity online, which is crucial in promoting a free and open Internet, critical public sphere, and maintaining safe spaces. Ultimately freedom of expression online is threatened and the growth of Malaysia’s emergent Internet economy is hindered because users will be deterred from using online services. The CIJ team is working steadfastly to protest this amendment before it is gazetted.

Our professor, Sandra Smeltzer, tried to prepare us for the love-hate relationship that is life in Malaysia. We came in hopes for an adventure, a culture shock and a chance to apply our academics to first-hand experiences. In return, we’ve been given a chance to discover how we can assist in the fight against oppression, human rights abuses and access to information challenges.

Kyla Garvey is entering fourth-year at Western pursuing a double major in Media and the Public Interest and Women’s Studies. Currently, she is interning in Malaysia with the Centre for Independent Journalism and hopes to one day be an investigative journalist.