aliran logo
   Home   Aliran Monthly    Statements   Human Rights    NGOs   Links   Join Us   About Us

It Matters Who Owns the Media

The MCA’s takeover of Nanyang triggered unprecedented grassroots resistance. It also sparked off a debate on which offers greater scope for media freedom - media owned by political parties or those owned by private business.

by Wong Kok Keong

media The heavily debated issue of MCA acquiring Nanyang Siang Pau was a watershed in the history of Malaysian media. Some of the grassroots protests against it should dispel the view that Malaysians don’t desire a free and independent press because it’s supposedly a ‘western value’.

But why so much protest now when the issue of political parties owning media in the country is nothing new? What’s the difference between media owned by political parties or those owned by private business when objectivity is said to be a myth? A reflection on the first question would help us grasp recent history more accurately lest it be distorted; discussion on the second would help sustain and consolidate this desire for a free and independent press.

Ling Liong Sik appeared to have underestimated the magnitude and fervour of the opposition to MCA acquiring Nanyang. It is doubtful he was surprised at it coming from Lim Ah Lek, given their differences, notwithstanding The Star’s earnest efforts to paper over them just before the 1999 election. Much of the takeover debate reflected the political infighting within MCA perhaps because of a changing of the guards in the offing.

Strategic Investment

ling Ling first said MCA would not interfere with Nanyang’s editorial policy just as it never had with The Star. But sceptics were vindicated when, after much criticism, he finally admitted to the takeover as a strategic political investment for MCA. It was nothing short of an admission of editorial interference to come. So why should The Star have been spared such interference? What else can “strategic political investment” mean?

Also vindicated were those who suspected Dr. Mahathir as playing a part from the beginning. After appearing publicly to be a mere spectator, saying the takeover was merely a business deal, he finally admitted unabashedly to giving Ling the greenlight for the takeover. The reason he offered sounded like punishment for the old Nanyang for, in his view, taking an anti-Barisan Nasional (BN) stance at the Lunas by-election, which saw the BN defeated by keADILan.

Political infighting within MCA (and the UMNO connection as Maznah Mohamed suggested in Aliran Monthly Vol 21:4 was played out in this takeover wayang (stage-show).

But let’s not ignore some of the grassroots resistance to the takeover in the name of free press. It was this resistance that fuelled the intensity of the protest.

Why Now?

But why now and not earlier, with the New Straits Times(NST), Utusan Malaysia, The Star and even the old Nanyang—-all owned directly or indirectly by component parties of the Barisan Nasional for at least the past dozen years?

A major reason has to be the political ramifications of the Anwar factor. The way the mainstream media covered the treatment of Anwar Ibrahim by the Mahathir government revealed the injustices of media owned by BN parties. Demonstrators - during and after the trials of Anwar - experienced first hand the distortion and lies reported about them. The true meaning of media owned by political parties finally sank in. Frustrated and angry, many began actively to seek out alternative media.

Publications like Aliran Monthly soon grabbed the attention of more Malaysians. But it was the online version of Harakah that first offered the most dynamic alternative. Though never risen to the status of a newspaper the PAS party organ performed an important role by happily catering to dissenting views.

That is, until Malaysiakini came along in November 1999. With Harakah predictably marginalised by the BN government after the 1999 election, Malaysiakini has helped keep the desire for a free and independent press alive. The Nanyang takeover came when many were still critical of the political and media policies of the Mahathir administration.

But will this desire for a free and independent press dissipate over time, now that Ling’s MCA takeover of Nanyang is a done deal? How can it be sustained and consolidated? An important way to address that is to consider the following: What’s the difference between media owned by private business or those owned by political parties?

Is Objectivity a Myth?

Some argue that just as individuals have their particular perspectives, so would media by reflecting the bias of their owners. Media objectivity, they say, is a myth and hence, it makes hardly any difference who owns the media.

Objectivity may be a myth insofar as it is difficult to detach one’s perspective or bias. The problem is that those who think that it is a myth are thinking of absolute objectivity. Since that cannot be attained, the door is shut on any creative endeavours at achieving at least some modicum of objectivity.

The notion that absolute objectivity is impossible to attain seems to justify their own lack of media fairness or their denial of space for opposing views to be presented prominently. It seems to support their view that the concept of independent media is equally a myth. And so, it doesn’t matter who owns the media.

But just because absolute objectivity, fairness and independence (OFI) are difficult, should they be abandoned? OFI are necessarily difficult not because they are nebulous but because the struggle for meaning and truth, in which they play a crucial role, is a social process. Media striving for OFI foster the use of critical reasoning as the measure of meritorious arguments instead of coercion/force.

Opponents may counter by saying all that would lead to a sensational and irresponsible media. They argue that by being open to differing views, media would be vulnerable or pandering to extreme views to whip up public interest. This would translate into larger profits for media companies but at the expense of social harmony and order. For example, media could be manipulated by groups espousing racially chauvinistic views that might fuel a violent response.

The possibility of extreme views arising should be treated with a lot of circumspection, although media should not have a monopoly on that responsibility. It should also be clear that media responsibility should be for the good of society, not just the political party in power. This difference needs to be kept in mind - especially when a political party, like the BN, has been in power for a long time, as it would naturally insist that any criticism of it is an attack on the country. Equating the interests of the ruling political party to those of the country is a game that ruling politicians have long played. It is no more than another self-serving way to dominate politically.

The Pitfalls of Political Party Control

Even if media owned by ruling political parties might ensure responsibility, it comes with a heavy price in at least two areas. One, the ruling political party would suppress opposing views by ruling them out by fiat as extreme, irresponsible, or alien and detrimental to society. It is a society governed by the backward feudalistic mentality of sycophancy rather than logical, critical reasoning.

The other price is that such media would lack credibility and the public would rely increasingly on rumours and the foreign media. It is no mystery that the Philippines and its government (since the overthrow of Marcos’ martial law regime in 1986) are rarely concerned over “negative” foreign news reports unlike the near-paranoid concern in Malaysia and Singapore. Whatever the foreign media have to say about the Philippines or its government is really nothing that the Filipinos have not already heard from their own media.

Hence the supreme irony: foreign media are given more attention and prosper more in Malaysia and Singapore, much to the glee of the foreign media merchants.

Political parties owning media in a market economy would also want to ensure profits. Some see this as offering a check on media getting too one-sided because it would alienate public support. But this is a narrow view.

Open any newspapers or tune in to any TV or radio station and one would not fail to see that they do not just provide political news. They also provide other information — foreign news, arts and entertainment, sports — that are major avenues for creating large audiences to attract advertising revenues. Lest there be any doubt, check out The Star and one would see the bulk of its contents taken up by sports, arts and entertainment pages, not to mention the voluminous job ads.

Further, while opposition parties are allowed to offer their publications, it is nonsensical to treat them as having the same status as UMNO’s Utusan Malaysia and NST and the MCA’s Star. Those who do so are deluding themselves.

They are comparing apples with oranges. The real comparison should be between the internal publications of the opposition (such as Harakah and The Rocket) and the internal ones of the BN component parties.

And since BN parties are allowed to own mainstream papers and radio and TV channels, why not the opposition parties too? Only then can we really begin to talk about fairness. Only then can we see how the different political parties offer their own spin on issues and make them available to the public at large, as opposed to party members only.

More "Space" Under Private Business?

So, what about media owned by private business? To be sure, private business owners have their self-interests to protect as well, a key one being to maximise profits. They sometimes protect their interests by availing themselves of influence from political parties in power. Even without the direct influence from the political parties, indirect influence exists. How then are media owned by private business better than those owned by political parties?

For one, these owners cannot expect the political parties they support to be in power all the time. Backing the wrong party could be costly. This is not applicable to the Malaysian situation, of course, since the BN has been in power since political independence.

Nonetheless, there is more room for journalism to develop into a more professional craft in media owned by private business. Journalists would have more room and less fear to pursue their craft with more professionalism. They will be able to strive for as much OFI so that the public would come to discern their credibility rather than political loyalty as a cardinal virtue of the news information they provide. Media credibility would be critical to public support and profit maximisation.

Such an impetus could foster a culture that on the one hand encourages the public to expect, demand and appreciate attempts at credibility and on the other hand overcomes the dead-end pessimism that rejects credibility as yet another impossibility or myth.

A frustration of some Malaysian journalists in the mainstream media over the years is precisely because they have not been appreciated for their honest efforts at credible journalism. The public have lumped them with other journalists having little qualms in doing the bidding of political parties that are their bosses. Thus marginalised, how else can they make headway with their cause?

It is not that media owned by private business will transform all journalists to strive for OFI to achieve credibility (though it would be nice). This is not about absolutes. It is about the emergence of “more” journalists fearlessly committed to strengthening their credibility and “more” members of the public able and willing to discern their efforts.

Similarly, media owned by private business arguably offer “more” viable opportunities for journalists to pursue OFI than media owned by political parties. Of course, private businesses may be less ideal when compared to non-profit, non-governmental organizations, but such non-profit ownerships are usually not feasible in a capitalist, market-economy. As long as capitalism is the prevailing economic system, private business as owners would be relatively, not absolutely, better at securing larger media freedom than political parties.

Although Ling’s MCA has taken over Nanyang, grassroots dissent was not defeated; rather, their efforts brought forth a historic moment in which more Malaysians became exposed to the importance of a free and independent media. The future will be well served by resolutely keeping in mind that it matters who owns the media.

Any comments? E-mail us.

Wong Kok Keong is a Malaysian teaching communication studies in the United States