In a general election that is to be intensely contested, many ‘strange things’ may emerge in the media, predicts Mustafa K Anuar.
The 13th general election is around the corner. This is evident not only because the Najib administration has stretched its tenure to the last few months, when it eventually has to call for the election, but also judging from the content of the mainstream media that has been put out to ordinary Malaysians.
One of the signs that indicate that the general election is nearing is that many of the mainstream newspapers, for instance, have increasingly highlighted “problems” that are occurring particularly in the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) states of Penang, Selangor, Kelantan and Kedah. Not that these so-called problems do not deserve the attention and concern of the citizenry; it’s just that the manner by which these problems have been reported and highlighted gives one the impression that only these states – and not the other states in the federation governed by the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition – have problems such as the water issue, traffic jams, environmental problems, religious rancour, and unisex hair salons.
Then there are TV commercials creeping into prime time, displaying the development policies and projects that supposedly benefit the majority of the people, especially the younger generation of first-time voters, and small-time entrepreneurs, to the point of their having to be consciously grateful to the BN government – and by extension, voting for BN.
Concerned and information-hungry Malaysians need to be more vigilant when consuming the content dished out by the mainstream media in the run-up to the general election primarily because these media are owned or controlled by the parties in the ruling BN coalition and its economic allies. They are thus expected to provide news and views that are largely in favour of BN to the extent of marginalising those of the PR. Malaysian voters need as much reliable information as possible before they can make an informed choice at the polling stations.
This is not to imply that the alternative media as a whole aren’t biased towards certain groups, but at least there are sections of these media that do try to be fair and balanced in their reportage. In other words, by and large the credibility of the alternative media, particularly the news portals, would far outweigh that of the mainstream media.
Given that verification of information – which is a cardinal rule of responsible journalism – is not considered important by at least a few editors and journalists in Malaysia, one can then expect rumours or mere allegations by certain quarters being paraded by this bunch of journalists as facts that should not be disputed by discerning Malaysians. In this case, concerned Malaysians ought to access and read the online news portals and other social media to make comparisons and to detect the unwanted phenomenon of liars wearing pants on fire.
Another mark of unfair reporting is where a political party or individuals that are maligned or attacked by another group of people are not given the right of reply by most, if not all, mainstream media. The politicians (usually from the PR side like Anwar Ibrahim) whose reputation is put into doubt by these media will not be given much opportunity to rebut the coverage, which may take the form of news reports, analyses and editorials. The smudged image of these individuals is expected to stick on them at least while the election campaign is ongoing.
In a conscious effort to vigorously promote the so-called inclusiveness of the 1Malaysia slogan, the mainstream media are expected to foreground Malaysians from all walks of life, particularly those ethnic and cultural minorities that do not have access to or are marginalised by the mainstream media under normal circumstances. For instance, the Orang Asli in the peninsula and the Ibans in the interiors of Sarawak would suddenly find themselves in the limelight when most of the time their socio-economic plight is often eclipsed by news items focusing on the political and economic interests of the ruling elite.
Public relations antics
Public relations exercise such as top political leaders pumping the flesh, cash handouts and walkabouts are expected to be camouflaged as hard news worthy of the front pages of the mainstream newspapers or prime time news bulletins on television. This category of information is often reported in lieu of news reporting of the long-term socio-economic policies of the contesting parties. This kind of reportage is aimed at offering a feel-good sensation among the voters.
Similarly, the past achievements of socio-economic policies of the incumbent BN will be paraded in news reports, analyses and political advertisements. One may argue that such past achievements should be highlighted and acknowledged. Yes, but not to the point of ignoring, if not concealing, other equally pressing problems that exist in society such as endemic corruption, bigotry, and ethnic polarisation.
In other words, there is a possibility of a dearth of important issues being reported or critically discussed in the mainstream media. To be sure, there will be televised forums or debates to discuss certain issues, but it is highly likely that certain professionals, politicians, intellectuals and academics will be ferreted out of the woodwork to offer views that are at best, BN-friendly and at worse, sycophantic. In short, the discussion may be slanted to the benefit of the incumbent party.
Then, there will be political endorsements of the incumbent BN among artistes, professionals, kampung folks and city dwellers in news reports and political advertisements. Not to be outdone, certain members of the corporate sectors would also get into the act. This is quite apart from the newspaper advertisements in which certain companies express their thanks and gratitude to certain BN leaders for, say, launching a new product or officiating at the opening of their building extensions.
Ethnic politics would also rear its ugly head and make headlines and, in turn, be magnified by the mainstream media to put fear into the voters should they fall “out of line”.
Similarly, there may be news coverage and so-called analyses of political violence that have occurred elsewhere as a sleight-of-hand reminder of the “danger” of public protests that clamour for a peaceful change of government (through the ballot box) – which, it would be insinuated, would lead to political instability and economic disruption.
Photographs, too, play an important role in the run-up to the election. Since numbers are often idolised by the incumbent party, pictures of political ceramah would give the impression of an enthusiastic response with overwhelming crowds even though the actual attendance may be quite paltry. Photoshop may even be employed here. In such cases, it would be beneficial to try and compare these pictures with those made available on the internet.
Last but not least, there will be reported defections from from opposition parties to certain BN component parties. More than that, a few of these defectors would be given the media platform to attack their former parties and paint their leaders in the blackest colour possible.
These are some of the signs to look out for. In a general election that is to be intensely contested, many other ‘strange things’ may emerge in the media as Malaysians approach the much-anticipated polls.