Last updated Friday, July 25, 2014 01:27am

A visitor takes pictures of Malaysia’s landmark Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. — AFP picA visitor takes pictures of Malaysia’s landmark Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. — AFP picKUALA LUMPUR, Feb 12 — Malaysia’s image as an open and moderate country took a beating after it tumbled 23 places to land at 147th spot in the World Press Freedom Index 2014, putting it below Thailand, Indonesia and even Myanmar.

In the latest annual survey of 180 countries by global media watchdog, Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), Malaysia’s ranking in Southeast Asia was only better than the Philippines, which placed 149th; Singapore in 150th position; Laos (171st) and Vietnam (174th).

In the accompanying report, RSF noted that Malaysia’s slide began in 2002, as access to information Malaysia now below Myanmar in world press freedom index became “more and more limited”.

The report, however, did not disclose the reason for the latest decline.

The index is derived from RSF’s surveys with among others, non-profit organisations, journalists and law experts and takes into account the number of violations against press freedom in a country, such as censorship and assaults on journalists.

The region’s best performers were Timor Leste, at the 77th spot, followed by Brunei at 117th.

Politically volatile Thailand shared the 130th position with Indonesia, while Cambodia rose to the 132 spot from its previous 143rd position in 2013.

Once regarded as repressive, Myanmar (145th) has made strides in opening up its media and was lauded for issuing more licences for new publications as well as allowing previously-exiled media outlets to again set up operations in Rangoon.

“Will Burma become Southeast Asia’s benchmark for positive change in freedom of information? This remains to be seen,” stated the report.

In an immediate reaction, DAP parliamentary adviser Lim Kit Siang said the recent index is “the worst setback to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s ‘best democracy in the world’ claim”.

The Gelang Patah MP previously predicted that Malaysia’s ranking would be hurt by Putrajaya’s suspension of HCK Media’s weekly publication The Heat last year.

The weekly paper was suspended on December 19 over what was then believed to be a report on the prime minister’s spending, but Putrajaya insisted that the freeze was due to violations of provisions contained within its printing permit.

The suspension was lifted in the first week of February.

Lim asserted that Malaysia’s ranking “would have been more abysmal” than Philippines and Singapore if the latest rejection of the publishing permit FZ Daily, a spin off FZ.com, was take into account.

The permit application was denied after publisher The Edge Communications Sdn Bhd was granted leave to initiate proceedings against the Home Ministry for deferring its initial approval of the permit.

Newspapers and periodicals in Malaysia are subject to the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) that requires a licence before they are allowed to operate.

In 2011, Prime Minister Najib announced the cessation of the annual renewal of printing permits as part of his reforms to provide Malaysians with greater civil liberties.