Freer media under PM Abdullah?

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abdullah badawiOne cannot depend merely on the personality of a leader to bring about fundamental reforms to major social institutions such as the media, writes Wong Kok Keong. However different the media are under Abdullah (compared to how they were under Mahathir), the environment now is hardly conducive for independent, critical media to take root and flourish.

With the next general election due latest by early 2009, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is now about half way through his first-term tenure as prime minister.  Many are already disillusioned with him as he has not delivered on several of his promises made in the run-up to the 2004 election.  Former PM Mahathir Mohamad also has his own issues with him.  This then may be an appropriate time to also examine how the mainstream media have fared under Abdullah. Are they any different today than they were under Mahathir?

After Abdullah dumped the “crooked bridge” project, Mahathir called a press conference to express his deep displeasure.  But the mainstream media hardly covered it. That fuelled his anger and prompted him to say the media during his time were more open.  He shamelessly pointed to the coverage of the protests against the jailing of Anwar Ibrahim to make his case.

More space

Brendan Pereira, Group Editor of the New Straits Times, however, believed that Abdullah had allowed the media more space for critical reportage and commentary—something consistent with Abdullah’s open and consultative style of governance.

The Star, normally content to focus on sports, business and lifestyle issues such as fashion, technology and health, has seen editors like Wong Chun Wai now and then penning cautious criticism of the authorities such as over the banning of Amir Muhammad’s documentary “The Last Communist”.
The most noticeable developments among the English dailies ever since Abdullah took over have taken place in theSun, which has taken to task several policies or practices of the government at the federal and state levels.  

The three major English dailies indicate that Abdullah’s administration has been more tolerant of critical media.  Is it true?

Draconian laws remain

To begin with, all the laws governing the media—the PPPA, the ISA and the OSA—are still firmly in place, hanging over the heads of journalists.   Not a single change has been made to any of them since Mahathir stepped down as premier in October 2003.   The BN government still has the power to shut down any publication.  

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Witness the fate of the Sarawak Tribune.  Evidence suggested that the editors made an honest mistake of reprinting caricatures of Prophet Muhammad following Muslim protests of a Danish paper that first published them.  But Abdullah’s government quickly shut it down for good.

The mainstream media also continue to be owned by interests directly or indirectly tied to the main component parties of the BN, especially UMNO and the MCA.  Top editorial positions at the NST and other papers under the NSTP are still known for being filled by appointees of the UMNO leadership.

This is not to deny that the mainstream media had provided some critical reports on issues such as the automobile Approved Permits scandals that saw Rafidah Aziz, normally happy to bask in the media limelight, avoiding the media like the plague; police impropriety and abuse of detainees; the questionable policies or practices of the municipal councillors; and the Home Ministry’s banning of Amir’s “The Last Communist” even though the censorship board had cleared it uncut for public viewing.   

Same deference

One would have to dig long and hard to come up with critical coverage when Mahathir was the premier. He was well known for hitting out at the media for even the slightest whiff of negativity on him or his administration.  This is true even when he is no longer the prime minister.  

When The Star’s Wong Chun Wai opined that Mahathir did not do much to combat corruption in the 22 years of his premiership, Mahathir not only called a press conference to set him straight but also extracted an apology from him at a dinner arranged by a Mahathir supporter for Mahathir and Malaysian journalists.

The English dailies under Mahathir were essentially a one-man show: Mahathir hogged the headlines as well as the inside pages almost daily.  Acting merely as his stenographer, the dailies were afraid to raise any criticism of him or his policies.  

But the mainstream media, with some exceptions that will be addressed shortly, have shown just as much deference to Prime Minister Abdullah.  The only difference is they are now willing to take to task others in government—such as Rafidah and those state-level politicians and municipal councillors.

Cue journalism

Still, this kind of critical reporting has been selectively applied.  The mainstream media blacked out the first peaceful street protest of the hike in petrol price by 30 sen.  Subsequent coverage played up the role of the police in maintaining peace and order.  Even though many complained about the heavy handedness of the police in dealing with the peaceful protestors, hardly any of that got into the mainstream media’s coverage.

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At other times, the mainstream media would engage in what is called ‘cue journalism’ or taking the cue from the Abdullah’s administration before engaging in critical coverage.  When the nude-squats issue surfaced and the police appeared to be abusive of a detainee, the media seemed eager to outdo one another in slamming the police after some high-ranking members of the Abdullah administration expressed displeasure at the police.  They even called for the setting up of the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) post haste.

But when the police and certain members of UMNO, especially UMNO Youth, grew critical of the IPCMC and Abdullah started to stall on implementing it, the mainstream media largely lost interest in it.

theSun, a refreshing exception 

The selective coverage and cue journalism are especially true of UMNO-connected NST and MCA-owned Star.  But theSun has offered exceptions as it has presented more critical commentaries or editorials of the authorities at the federal and state levels.  A more recent example is the “Letter to the PM” by columnist and assistant editor Jacqueline Ann Surin, who criticised PM Abdullah for not making good his election promise to be a PM for all Malaysians.

The more critical thrust of the free paper has more in common with Malaysiakini than NST or The Star.  The paper first showed some inkling of its independence when covering the run-up to the 2004 general election.  That it has since strengthened its critical stance gives hope to many Malaysians who have been waiting for far too long for the mainstream media to show some spine instead of just parroting the authorities.  It is doubtful theSun would have lasted this long under Mahathir.

One wonders though whether the Abdullah administration has allowed theSun to continue because it is largely focused on the Klang Valley and is available only in a few urban centres.  In any case, its readership has grown and it would be encouraging if it has something to do with its critical stance.

Institutional mechanisms needed 

Still, whatever difference we have witnessed in the mainstream media since Abdullah took over from Mahathir has more to do with Abdullah’s personality than anything else.  Although this may encourage Abdullah’s supporters, including those in the media such as the NST, to go around saying the mainstream media have seen a fundamental change by being more independent or critical, it is hardly convincing.

READ MORE:  Investigative journalism: Holding the powerful to account

Surely, one cannot depend merely on the personality of a leader to bring about fundamental reforms to major social institutions such as the media.  It is far too fickle or unreliable, subject to the changing politics of the day.  Even if the particular leader is receptive to critical, independent media, such media would last only for as long as that individual is in power.  Institutional mechanisms need to be created to ensure that critical, independent media are here to stay regardless of who the PM is.

If Abdullah is truly interested in developing the software to mould Malaysians into having a First World mentality to go with First World infrastructure in the country, he should work on allowing the mechanisms in the media to take shape.  Start by reviewing the various media laws that have for far too long put the fear in many Malaysians of speaking out freely, thereby retarding their ability to think creatively and for themselves.  Remove the licensing requirement for newspapers as it has the effect of disallowing media whose politics are different from those of the Barisan Nasional’s from being published.  And get rid of the barbaric ISA.

Until then, however different the media are under Abdullah (compared to how they were under Mahathir), the environment now is hardly conducive for independent, critical media to take root and flourish.

The sorriest part of it all is that given Abdullah’s poor track record of making good on his 2004 election promises—for example, the failure to go after the big fish in the fight against corruption and stalling on the implementation of the IPCMC to reform the police—one cannot help but be sceptical that he will be to bring about fundamental media reforms for the long run.

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