Despite being in government in 4 states, Pakatan Rakyat has had to battle it out in the online space because of restricted media coverage in mainstream papers. Published in The Penang Monthly in August 2010, this article (and others to follow) are included in my book The States of Reform, written specifically on the Selangor and Penang state governments.
Information in restricted public space
Perhaps the most decisive battle between Malaysia’s two coalitions is being fought in the information arena, and not in by-elections or in parliament. As in most countries, ownership of the mass media affects the level of press freedom greatly. But when draconian laws are also in place strangling information flow, as in Malaysia, then we have a serious problem. However, necessity is the mother of invention.
One of the fundamental pillars of any modern democracy is a free mass media. It is through transparent and responsible reporting by independent journalists that the public is provided with unbiased information and can form opinions based on it. In a healthy political environment, ideas flow freely and a variety of alternatives are available for public consumption.
Unfortunately, this is not the case in Malaysia. Freedom House’s 2010 Freedom of the Press world ranking exercise places Malaysia at 142nd out of 196 countries surveyed, which puts us in the world’s bottom 30% of countries in the area of press freedom. Neighbours like Indonesia, the Philippines, East Timor and Thailand are ahead of us.
The inherent problem is that media ownership is concentrated to a few who are closely linked with the ruling coalition government. The current media conglomerates are namely:
i. Media Prima, which is aligned to the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), is a major shareholder in the New Straits Times Press, which publishes The New Straits Times, New Sunday Times, Berita Harian, Berita Minggu and Harian Metro; and owns TV3, NTV7, 8TV and Channel 9, as well as radio stations Fly.FM and Wafm;
ii. Huaren Holdings, which is the investment arm of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), owns The Star, Nanyang Siang Pau and China Press;
iii. Utusan Melayu (M) Bhd group, which is also linked to UMNO, owns Utusan Malaysia, Mingguan Malaysia, Kosmo! and a range of Malay-language magazines; and
iv. Other Chinese-based newspapers such as Sin Chew Daily, Guang Ming Daily and Oriental Daily, owned by business tycoons.
Given the concentration of media power in the hands of the politically well-connected, opposition parties have always had a hard time getting fair coverage. Newspapers critical of government policies or personalities have been invariably threatened, resulting rather quickly in editorial self-censorship. Earlier this year, an NTV7 producer resigned in protest over his company’s decision to stop his talk show from commenting on the upcoming by-election at Hulu Selangor, following pressure said to have emanated directly from the ruling coalition. A TV2 documentary on the controversial Bakun Dam and the forced relocation of Sarawak’s natives was forced off the air, just before the Sibu parliamentary by-election took place. It is clear that open debate has little room to flourish in Malaysia. The sort of Prime Ministerial debates recently carried out in Britain are obviously not the sort of thing our federal government is confident about handling.
The Centre for Independent Journalism found that in the lead-up to the 2008 elections, reporting in The Star (63%) and Utusan Malaysia (82%) strongly favoured the Barisan Nasional.
The second major problem is the legal framework within which the mass media operates. The Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) states that the Minister of Home Affairs has the authority to grant, renew and revoke printing licences and publishing permits. This is, and has been used as, an easy tool of control. Most recently, for example, the Home Ministry suspended the publishing permit of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)’s newspaper, Suara Keadilan, for allegedly going against the PPPA in an article claiming that the Federal Land and Development Agency (FELDA) was bankrupt. The Ministry is not happy with the explanation that Suara Keadilan had provided so far, and is demanding a “satisfactory explanation”. What is satisfactory is at the arbitrary behest of the ruling government.
Other laws that have restricted the press from acting freely and independently are the Official Secrets Act 1972, the Internal Security Act 1960 and the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, all of which have essentially suppressed the freedom of expression in Malaysia. Whilst it is important that information affecting national security needs to be controlled, many of these restrictions should be lifted. Given the comprehensive web of constraints, the Internet – when it appeared – was a welcome haven for alternative news. This was especially prominent during the general election in March 2008. Online mass media sources currently include the pioneering Malaysiakini, Malaysia Today, The Malaysian Insider, Merdeka Review, The Nut Graph and newcomer Free Malaysia Today, all of which act as alternatives to mainstream media.
Although there have not been any website bans imposed by the government – the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) scrapped an initial plan to use filters on the Internet to “curb pornography” last year – threats against such sites and against bloggers exist, for example, against outspoken blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin who was sued for criminal defamation for an article hosted on his site. Malaysiakini continues to suffer harassment, with its people being interviewed for eight continuous hours in 2009 over its video on protests that had taken place at the Selangor state building.
With such stark controls on both the mainstream and online media, it has been interesting to observe the measures taken by Pakatan Rakyat-controlled state governments to circumvent the biased news reporting against them. After all, the only way a government is able to effectively publicise and communicate its positive policies and programmes is through popular media. How then would these governments – in Penang and Selangor, for example – broaden their access to the voting public, apart from maintaining official websites such as www.penang.gov.my and www.selangor.gov.my?
Some alternatives are indirect, such as the initiative taken by Socio-Economic and Environmental Research Institute (SERI) in late 2009 to revamp its circular, the Penang Economic Monthly (the magazine this column appears in). The magazine focuses on economic and cultural affairs, and is sold in and outside of Penang, acknowledging the large dispersal of Penangites living and working in the Klang Valley and beyond. This has been received well, largely because its scope is comprehensive, and it covers in a semi-academic fashion political, economic, historical and social issues that concern the state of Penang as such.
The magazine has in fact been used on a couple of occasions by the Penang opposition, meaning UMNO, in the state assembly to debate against the state government!
It is as yet not clear whether the government of Penang will publish its own state newspaper in the near future.
The Selangor state government has a more structured communication package, which includes a Selangorkini monthly newspaper that is distributed throughout the state, targeted at the Malay rural heartland. It also has an online version of the newspaper, but updated daily at www.selangorkini.com.my and www.tvselangor.com, a Web TV which has both news and live online video streaming showcasing the State Legislative Assembly and Selangor Select Committee on Competency, Accountability and Transparency (SELCAT) sittings. Selangor is also expected to table a Freedom of Information (FOI) enactment in the state assembly, which adopts the right to information as a rule of thumb, and only lists restrictions affecting national and state security amongst others.
Such efforts are creative methods found in Pakatan states that reach out to the public. However, communication between government and people continues to be a problem.
Leaflets, circulars and inserts into existing party organs like the Democratic Action Party (DAP)’s The Rocket, Suara Keadilan and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS)’ Harakah are used to disseminate information. However, the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research polls show that the majority of Malaysians still rely on information obtained through television and mainstream newspapers to form their political opinions. Whilst Chinese-medium newspapers have been generally fair in the reporting of news from Pakatan Rakyat state governments, the same cannot be said of Utusan Malaysia.
There is certainly room for improvement and increased engagement, especially when the population is hungry for interaction with their state and local governments. Social media is an example that can be capitalised upon, such as Facebook, Twitter, personal websites and blogs, and so on. State leaders have adopted these although not optimally; Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, Selangor Menteri Besar Khalid Ibrahim and a horde of State Executive Councillors, Members of Parliament and State Legislative Assemblymen are taking their political battles – sometimes with great wit and sarcasm – onto the Internet. Technological developments will therefore offer opportunities for greater public involvement, despite restrictions. The recently launched offshoot of Malaysiakini, Komunitikini.com, for example, can offer excellent ways for local councillors to promote local events and issues.
Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes. Pakatan state governments have therefore to think up new and unique methods to overcome blockages on the information highways. There is still much room for improvement.
However, Malaysia cannot proclaim itself a First World, high-income, progressive and developed country as long as it continues to exert a stranglehold on its mass media. Worse, such legal and political pressures have lowered the quality of writing, debate and speeches to an embarrassing level.
Structural and legal reforms are imperative if Malaysia is to mature properly.