The age of uncertainty

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Malaysia’s Chinese-language newspapers are losing their relative autonomy at a time when their Internet rivals are providing more uncensored news, says Tan Lee Ooi.

None of the media in Malaysia is really isolated from the problem of state intervention in news coverage. But for the Chinese press in 2006, what really runs deeper than mere government control is the uncertainties that have emerged – uncertainties in the way of losing the relative independence they had in the past even as much keener market competition looms. For media practitioners or readers, a lot of things look uncertain and not in their proper order.

The state of confusion is fermented by the unpredictable, harsh and undefined actions or decisions that have violated the “ready-to-take-criticism” and “hear-the-truth” electoral promises of the current regime.

'The Great Chief Editor'

Historically, the Chinese press preserved their relative freedom compared to their  counterparts in other languages. The scenario was rewritten with the appointment of a Chinese deputy minister in the Internal Security Ministry since the early 1990s. This has created a new invisible hand (yet known). The situation has worsened with the creation of another special post, the appointment of a Chinese political secretary to the Prime Minister. It is believed that the relatively larger space enjoyed by the Chinese press is decreasing.

Due to the frequent editorial interventions, some observers have dubbed the Chinese deputy Internal Security Minister as ‘The Great Chief Editor’ (Tai Shang Zong Bian Ji) of the Chinese press. In Mandarin, Zong Bian Ji is the chief editor. Tai Shang means somebody higher than the emperor in the ancient Chinese dynasties such as the parent or the grandparent of the emperor who could influence the kingdom’s affairs. ‘The Great Chief Editor’ acts as a new authority and establishes a new mechanism that has created more chaos than order. Phone calls and personal visits are the tricks of the day.

The inconsistency began with the ‘nude squats’ incident. At the end of 2005, China Press incorrectly reported the nationality of the ‘nude squats’ victim. Subsequently, the incident hit the media headlines in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The government alleged that  it had damaged the international image of Malaysia. China Press apologised but, a few days later, its two top editors took full responsibility and resigned ‘voluntarily’, according to an announcement made by the paper.

Unanswered question

However, it still left behind the unanswered question of who was responsible for asking them to resign. Utusan Malaysia reported that China Press took the decision after being pressured by the Internal Security Ministry (‘mengambil tindakan itu setelah mendapat desakan KDN’, Utusan Malaysia, 6 January 2006). The Chinese-language Internet media Merdekareview.com reported that Ong Ka Ting visited the main office of China Press and pacified the journalists and editors. They were told that the resignation was necessary to safeguard the evening edition publication, which serves an important market  – the Klang Valley area – for China Press.

Later, Abdullah Badawi denied the allegation that it was the Internal Security Ministry that forced the resignation in response to a query by Lim Kit Siang in Parliament. Curiously enough, who is the ‘Little Napoleon’?

What the online news website, Malaysiakini.com’s chief editor, Steven Gan, refers to as ‘a not-so-funny cartoon witch-hunt’ also contributes to the current state of lack of order. After The Sarawak TribuneGuangming Daily’s evening edition and an editor in Penang were also suspended for two weeks after publishing a photo showing a reader with a foreign newspaper containing the offending cartoons. The action was taken even though Guangming Daily managed to retrieve most of its newspapers soon after they hit the streets. Only a small number was believed to have been sold to the public.

Expired permit

There is a fierce competition in the northern region between the evening editions of Guangming DailyKwong Wah Yit Poh. The suspension of the newspaper triggered a slight drop in the share value of Sin Chew Media Corporation on Bursa Malaysia.

Until early April, Oriental Daily News (ODN) was still using its old publication permit, which had expired on 31 December 2005. Hence, the mystery of the permit approval of ODN was clouded with speculation and rumour. Early this year, the market speculated that the willingness of the owner to persist with its three-year-long unprofitable investment was in doubt. Not long after that, the old boss of ODN passed away. Once again, speculation emerged until the new boss dispelled it and the paper moved its main office from Subang Jaya to the city centre of Kuala Lumpur at Jalan Dang Wangi, where it occupies a seven-storey  building.

But the mystery remains. Who halted the permit approval of ODN? This unsolved mystery became the main concern of media observers and it has sparked all kinds of rumours, including of conflict of interest, fighting between media companies in the process of permit approval and tales of bribery and corruption. If we regard all this as merely rumours, it only reinforces the inconsistency of the current regime in its media policy.

It was not until 20 April, during a parliamentary session, deputy Internal Security Minister Mohd Johari Baharum admitted that the ODN’s permit has been approved on 7 April, without giving any rationale or justification for the delay. Nobody knows why the ODN finally obtained its permit after publishing for more than three months ‘illegally’.

Market realignment 

Besides living with the uncertainty of government media politics, the Chinese newspaper market face a new sphere of competition. First, market realignment is taking place. These include the emergence of ODN in the market and the changing share ownership of Nanyang Press Holdings.

ODN has shown strong growth in daily circulation since its inception in 2003. With new market strategies, ODN has seen a dramatic hike in circulation this year. According to ABC, in February, ODN’s circulation reached nearly 80,000 copies daily during 2005,  which was higher than Kwong Wah Yit Poh’s. As columnist Sim Kwang Yang described it, ‘the new kid on the block in the Chinese media world’, ‘ODN has played a leading role’ and ‘kept alive public debate’.

At the same time, after MCA took over Nanyang Press, the group’s profit for 2005 recorded a further decrease of 33 per cent from the previous year's; its daily circulation also fell from 163,219 copies in 2001, prior to takeover, to 137,333 in 2005.

The other major market realignment development involves the owner of Sin Chew Media Corporation Bhd. Tiong Hiew King, through a company linked to him, Madigreen Sdn. Bhd, has acquired 20.44 per cent of the shares of Nanyang Press and is now indirectly the second biggest shareholder in Nanyang Press. ODN reported that this has confirmed the rumour of Sin Chew having a hand in the MCA’s takeover in 2002.

Recently, ODN has continuously highlighted the nightmare of a possible concentration of the ownership of Chinese dailies. The Selangor Chinese Hall Assembly and writers’ group WAMI issued a press statement to oppose Tiong’s move.

Nevertheless, those in the forefront of opposition to the acquisition in 2002 have mostly remained silent especially the ‘Team B’ in MCA, Chinese associations and community leaders. The politics within the BN supposedly represents the final resistance force to the formation of a Chinese media conglomerate in Malaysia.

But according to an analysis in Merdekareview.com, through has political linkages, might possibly make his next move. He is testing the Chinese community and the BN with his ‘grand vision’ of market realignment through indirect acquisition before making the final move. However, former Sin Chew executive director Gan Chin Kew has been appointed as the new group managing director and group chief executive officer of the Nanyang Group since February 2006.


Competition in cyberspace

Second, in addition to the uncertain media policy and market realignment, the Chinese newspapers also have to face new competition in cyberspace. Last year, two Chinese-language Internet dailies were launched. These two portals, Merdekareview.com and the Chinese version of Malaysiakini.com, are experimenting with a new form of online journalism. These two Internet dailies supply the Chinese speaking readers with far more critical news analyses and commentary without the unnecessary censorship practices of the conventional media.

Freer space on the Internet also led to a plethora of websites and blogs, which facilitate the formation of a ‘public space’. Active Internet users always voice their dissatisfaction with the censored mainstream news coverage in their blogs or cyber forums. The Chinese newspapers are losing their relative autonomy at a time when the Internet media provide more uncensored news. This has put the Chinese newspapers in a disadvantaged position even as they face stiff competition.

Will the Chinese press satisfy the rising expectation of their readers? Can they still be reliable as they used to be? Which direction the Chinese media take will surely spark much curiousity as we enter the age of uncertainty.

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Tan Lee Ooi has recently completed a study of the on-line media. He used to be a journalist. 

 

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