GE13: Pliant papers, restless hearts

The normally compliant mainstream media dropped all pretence of trying to be socially responsible newspapers in the run-up to the general election, observes Mustafa K Anuar.

The infamous statement made by Utusan
The infamous statement made by Utusan

The recent 13th general election, dubbed by some as “the Mother of Elections”, was hotly contested by the two coalitions of Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Rakyat (PR) because the stakes were high especially for the two key leaders of these coalitions.

Incumbent Najib Razak was not only strongly challenged by his nemesis Anwar Ibrahim in this electoral contest, but also by an emboldened and revitalised opposition coalition that the latter leads. Besides, Najib strategically needed to win big in the general election to ward off any possible attempts at displacing him as Umno Baru president at the end of the year, when party polls are held, had he suffered heavy electoral losses.

In addition, there is the restless and energised civil society that has been demanding good governance, accountability and transparency. it has also been waging an unwavering and relentless campaign against systemic and endemic corruption, a spike in the crime rate and the rising cost of living as well as forging a movement for free and fair elections.

Compliant media dropped all pretences

Given this larger context, it is hardly surprising that the normally compliant mainstream media, particularly much of the press, dropped all pretence of trying to be socially responsible newspapers in their endeavour to serve the jealously guarded interests of their political masters.

Stripped to the bone, these newspapers without shame appeared to be more like (BN) party organs especially in the run-up to the general election, putting heavy emphasis on, and prioritising, matters and issues related to the BN, while distorting, downplaying and denigrating the PR and their policies.

The deliberately biased and distorted reporting in the mainstream press ran parallel with the BN’s larger psychological warfare that included free concerts, free dinners, free beers, and large political billboards on the highways. Then there were the pro-BN advertisements in the newspapers, on radio, Youtube, Facebook, email accounts and news portals; the selective screening of the controversial and discredited Tanda Putera; and cash handouts carried out openly and freely.

In this regard, the claim that the BN had spent millions of ringgit for its electoral campaigns, particularly political advertisements, is no exaggeration. These advertisements were a part of the ideological and psychological arsenal of the BN.

As for the mainstream press, particularly certain English and Malay language newspapers, there appeared to be a disconnect between these publications and the rest of society, especially the discerning and the young. The social reality that these dailies construct often didn’t square with what the public was experiencing.

For example, The Star (1 May 2013) front-paged Najib’s whirlwind visit to Penang where he announced “a slew of good tidings” such as the federal government’s pledge to build 9,999 (don’t know why this ‘magic’ four-digit number) affordable homes, upgrade Han Chiang College and scrap the cross-channel tunnel project.

While these promises might have had traction with some Penangites, there were other equally pressing issues still haunting the people: endemic corruption, absence of the rule of law, the rising cost of living, and social injustice. The expected euphoria from the people of Penang, arising from the well-publicised announcement was rather misplaced.

Ethics of journalism ignored

In their inherent desire to serve, nay please, their political masters, the mainstream newspapers totally ignored the ethics of journalism. They were out of sync not only with social reality, but also and especially with the younger generation who did not take what was offered by these dailies blindly nor did they react kindly to disinformation. This is a group of young people who are eager to participate in the democratic process of the country, but to do so effectively they require as much information as possible – which the mainstream press is not willing to provide.

These mainstream newspapers did a disservice to themselves when they involved themselves in scaremongering in the run-up to the general election. The MCA-owned Star ecstatically painted the blackest possible picture of the so-called ‘dangerous duo’ of the DAP and Pas over the hudud controversy. The casting of aspersions by the daily was dangerously conducted in a way that could pit one ethnic and religious community against another to the detriment of delicate ethnic relations in the country.

As if such reportage wasn’t enough to cause unnecessary uneasiness, The Star also ran a series of political advertisements aimed at undermining the political legitimacy of both the DAP and Pas while further demonising hudud. For instance, in one advertisement in the newspaper, Malaysians were warned: “PM will be from Pas and Pas hudud to follow.” And this was followed by the usual foolish political chant of “A vote for DAP is a vote for Pas”.

In Sabah and Sarawak, similar attacks on Pas over hudud were mounted in political advertisements in major Chinese-language newspapers such as See Hua Daily and Overseas Chinese Daily News to the point of idiocy. In one advertisement, a woman was shown sporting red lipstick and red nail polish, accompanied by a caption: “Now your life is colourful.” Next to this picture was one that showed a finger without nail polish and pale lips, with the caption: “It would be like this if or when Pas takes over.”

Worse, such distorted presentation and advertisements over a religious issue was tantamount to promoting Islamophobia amongst non-Muslim Malaysians. It is to the credit of ordinary Malaysians that most of them did not fall for the ethno-religious bait that was deviously propagated by both politicians and the media concerned.

DAP denied space to rebut

Equally disturbing was that the DAP was denied the opportunity and space to respond or rebut such strong accusations in similar fashion, i.e. by coming out with their own political advertisements to counter the misrepresentation in the same newspaper. Thus, the DAP was unable to correct the distortion to counter the MCA’s anti-hudud attack.

DAP leaders accused The Star of rejecting its application to place an advertisement; the newspaper’s management insisted that it was rejected because the advertisement had, amongst other things, “elements that could provoke sentiments of hate which could lead to a divisive society”. That’s rich coming from a paper that wilfully provides a platform for the politics of hate and fear in our society.

Given the unethical and unconscionable practice of demonising hudud via DAP and Pas and consequently pitting one community against another, it is therefore utterly hypocritical of The Star to carry post-GE13 stories supposedly meant to promote and prioritise unity among the diverse ethnic groups in the country – but clearly that was not the intention in their practice.

Unfair reporting, obviously, is not condoned by many Malaysians. This explains why The Star found it necessary to conduct an interview with its deputy chairperson Vincent Lee, which was reported on 3 May 2013. Lee reportedly insisted that the daily had made “a conscious effort to provide coverage to both sides (of the political divide)” as a way of practising fair journalism. “We have allocated at least two pages of news for the opposition parties daily in our main pages, as well as in Metro.”

As if to convince himself further, Lee implied that his paper respects differing points of view.

Lee and his newspaper should bear in mind that the credibility and reputation of a newspaper organisation, arising from a conscious practice of fair and ethical journalism, is not established on the assurance of its top boss. It is normally built upon years of high standards of fearless and responsible journalism.

Kit Siang portrayed as splitting the races

This apparent assurance sounds hollow when you start looking at a copy of The Star in which the content of the national news mainly revolved around the MCA and the BN. There were, to be sure, two or three items on the PR. Compare that to the one whole page of a seemingly worried outgoing Johor Mentri Besar Ghani Othman, lamenting about his political contender (implying Lim Kit Siang) whose purportedly aggressive style of politicking had caused harm to the moderate “Johor way”, which he had supposedly built over the years.

Kit Siang was portrayed in this appeal to the people of Johore as a politician who potentially could cause a split between the main ethnic groups in the state, namely the Malays and the Chinese. Would the newspaper, in the name of fairness and responsible journalism, provide space for Kit Siang to respond?

Moreover, in a more democratic society, dissenting voices do not require a quota of two or three pages. They get the fair amount of editorial space they rightfully deserve just as the ruling party gets its rightful portion.

Apart from such news reporting, there are the sycophantic commentaries penned by columnists in certain English-language newspapers who waxed lyrical about the supposed ‘virtues’ of the BN and its politicians.

In the meantime, there was lots of activity in cyberspace. The major news portals, for instance, were giving the mainstream papers a run for their money. The former had made attempts to present free, fair and responsible journalism. Although there were certain weaknesses in these alternative media, such as occasional factual errors and limited resources, they at least consciously tried to offer space for politicians from both sides of the political divide.

Malaysiakini provides free access

In the case of Malaysiakini, which is a subscription-based news portal, it made a deliberate decision to offer a no-fee service in the run-up to the general election in a noble endeavour to allow access to as many readers as possible at an important juncture of Malaysia’s political history.

For most PR leaders, these virtual news outlets are the among the few platforms available for them to talk about their manifestos, policies and positions on certain issues. These alternative media served as a vital mechanism through which PR politicians could try to defend themselves in the face of the outrageous ideological onslaught made against them in the mainstream media. Certainly, the right of reply was not offered (nor provided sufficiently) or respected by much of the mainstream media.

Inquisitive and discerning readers were able to get as much information as possible about the political situation in the country as well as incisive and no-holds-barred commentaries from the news portals. They were also able to obtain information and comments in social media such as Facebook.

It is noteworthy, though, that such access to a variety of news and information was mainly confined to geographical areas where there is Internet access, which in many cases translates into a rural-urban divide. This situation has repercussions on the inalienable rights of the citizenry to have access to information, the freedom of expression and the ability to make informed choices.

For the sake of democracy and real service to the rakyat, the mainstream newspapers and other media (and their respective owners) should look hard at the mirror – and to the future.

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