The phrase, 'First World infrastructure, Third World mentality' - originally used by the Malaysian government to deride poor hotel service - has returned to haunt officials. People are using it to criticise the backwardness of Malaysian society in health care, apathy in the face of corruption - and intolerance towards independent media. The country's tiny group of independent journalists say their First World media production technology is offset by Third World standards of media suppression and intolerance for nonconforming opinions. These issues were hotly debated in Kuala Lumpur this week at a forum on the media organised by the United Nations Development Programme, which brought together newspaper owners, rights groups, government and opposition leaders, and independent journalists. The aim was to reduce suspicion, but tempers flared, revealing deep divisions among participants. The forum coincided with the release on Tuesday of a global index of press freedom by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders media advocacy group. It ranked Malaysia 110th out of 139 nations - in company with Myanmar and Laos. Malaysia's press activists told the forum the repression could be resolved through the repeal of about 20 laws that control publications, and by introducing a US-style freedom of information act. 'We must repeal all the oppressive media laws and replace them with a single freedom of information act that would add debate in our society,' said Steven Gan, the editor of the independent Malaysiakini online news daily. Opposition leader Lim Kit Siang says such an act would balance what people are getting now - an overwhelming flow of government information to the exclusion of other views. However, the government says such an act is unsuitable and would cause disunity in a multi-racial society. 'Such a law would be like starting a fire that would go out of control,' said Deputy Home Minister Chor Chee Heung. The global index gauges government respect for press freedom. Hong Kong leads the way in the Asia-Pacific region. Rights groups and journalists say Malaysia's low ranking was because of intolerance and the use of laws to restrict and silence critical publications. But panellists also blamed the managers of mainstream media, and self-censorship among editors. Activist Cynthia Gabriel said last year her group issued 53 press statements on race relations, police brutality and detention without trial. But only two were published in the press. Ms Gabriel, executive director of the rights group Suaram, or People's Voice, said newspaper executives routinely rejected articles on these subjects by saying they were 'sensitive matters' that would anger the government. Critics also blame the media for being quick to label issues - and the individuals or groups that raise them - as anti-government, a practice that restricts democracy. Mr Gan said: 'It is either attack or defend yourself. There is no middle ground in society, and independent positions are difficult to defend.' The belief that the Internet would create a forum for democratic debate has taken a beating, judging from the the experience of Dr Kiranjit Kaur, a multi-media specialist. She told panellists how she started a Web-based forum last month to promote democratic discussions, but quickly closed it when users simply turned it into a forum for complaints about an increase in telephone rates. 'We just don't know how to debate,' she said.