Prime Minister Najib Razak presented his “annual report” last Tuesday evening, informing the country how good his administration has been in achieving key targets under the economic and government transformation programmes.
Indeed he has done well. Most of the targets have been achieved. According to Najib’s projection, if everything goes to plan, Malaysia would qualify as a high-income nation before 2020.
Right on cue, mainstream media in Malaysia went into overdrive to report what Najib said. The frenzy surrounding Najib’s latest announcement would probably continue for at least a few more days. Good news like this will not be allowed to fade. After all, several TV channels continue to broadcast clips highlighting promises made by the government in their national budget announcement back in October last year, just to make sure voters don’t forget how “generous” the BN government is.
On the other hand, the alternative media is also in overdrive. There are quite a few outlets who would call themselves alternative media and they do have a sizeable following. In the quest to present the “other” side of the news, they inevitably end up publishing reports that are seen as mainly against BN. In fact, since Tuesday evening, many have been working hard to show how Najib is wrong, arguing that things are not as rosy as portrayed in his speech.
This is the reality of the Malaysian media. The way some media outlets report news is completely predictable. Although thanks to positive steps taken by the government the Malaysian media is not as shackled as they used to be, partisanship is still in excess supply.
Of course there are exceptions and there are several media outlets that are relatively exemplary. But that is exactly the problem – serious independent journalism are exceptions rather than the rule.
As the country inches closer to general election, the media becomes even more crucial. Their extensive reach makes the media an extremely influential tool to persuade voters. And Malaysian politicians know this.
Some Barisan Nasional (BN) leaders clearly have good media advisors. Their use of the media to influence public perception has been very effective lately.
The Lahad Datu incursion is a good example. In this case, BN’s strategy in handling the media is outstanding. It is so effective to the extent that almost no one is able to debate the big elephant in the room, which is the government’s incompetence that resulted in complete failure to protect Malaysia’s borders from armed invaders. This is not at all debated in the Malaysian media.
Instead, anyone who questions the authorities will immediately be labelled unpatriotic and disloyal. Discussions about the root cause of the incursion and which minister should be sacked do not get any space. It seems like a senior media advisor has decided that Lahad Datu must not be allowed to damage the government, and all media reports must focus on certain aspects on the tragedy only.
Pakatan Rakyat (PR) is severely disadvantaged because every time someone from their side tries to raise pertinent questions, the media will jump into labelling them as traitors. Admittedly it is distasteful to suggest that there may be political benefits from the Lahad Datu incursion. But it must be stated that BN’s media strategy is so good, they are monopolising such benefits if there is any. PR is completely blocked from taking even a small pinch.
Nevertheless PR is not angelic either. Their strategy is exactly the same in media outlets that they control. Pro-PR media does not report any of BN’s good deeds. So, while pro-BN media spews allegations of PR corruptions and weaknesses, pro-PR media simply take the reverse position.
This situation is far from healthy. But in a democracy, partisanship among media outlets is, in principle, not wrong. The hallmark of a free society is when people have the freedom to speak and write what they want. If a particular media outlet chooses to be partisan, then a free society would accept and defend their right to be so. Individuals exercise their freedom by deciding which media they want to read or watch.
Thus in a country facing an impending general election, if a Malaysian wants to listen to more than one side, all he has to do is simply buy more than one newspaper or watch more than one TV channel. At least that’s the theory.
The challenge faced by Malaysians today is the uneven playing field. BN has almost complete access to mainstream media, be it broadcast or print. In fact, when it comes to broadcast media, BN has almost complete domination to the extent that even a taxpayer-funded government agency could be turned into a partisan propaganda machinery.
PR’s media reach is severely limited. There may not be written rules banning opposition politicians from the media. But media practitioners and editors exercise self-censorship to reduce the risk of actions from authorities. As a result, the opposition is disadvantaged in their campaign.
The real victims are the citizens. Access to reliable information is extremely important to ensure voters vote based on knowledge. In the case of Malaysia, the print and broadcast media are the only platforms with sufficient reach for this purpose. The online media may be growing as an industry, but their reach is still limited.
True democracies would facilitate politicians’ access to media. A government that truly believes in democracy would ensure the total ecosystem is one that allows for different ideas to reach the public. This general election is a test of the Najib administration’s resolve in creating this healthy environment.
The writer is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), an independent think tank in Malaysia. He writes in his personal capacity.