Smoke and mirrors

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By no stretch of the imagination can what is being proposed – with the conditions imposed – be interpreted as ‘free and fair access’ to the media, observes Rom Nain.

Najib: Empty talk about ‘transformation’

For many, certainly among the educated, urban middle class, it has become quite apparent why this administration has become increasingly unpalatable.

There have been the barefaced lies and arrogant disdain in response to scandals such as the National Feedlot Corporation (NFC) and Scorpene and controversial projects such as the Lynas plant.

There also have been the crass accusations and misrepresentations of important and meaningful events like Bersih 3.0, the ongoing blatant buying of the peoples’ votes using public funds and, of course, the continuing, unprovoked character assassination of people and parties who, for some inexplicable reason, seem to scare the living daylights out of the members of this regime.

Tuesday’s call by the BN’s Seri Gading MP, Mohamad Aziz, for Bersih co-chairperson Ambiga Sreenevasan to be hanged for treason is a perfect example of this desperation, this stupidity, this insanity.

All this, evidently, has contributed to a general feeling of revulsion among many at the antics of a regime that appears to have gone mad with power. And will do anything to cling on to it, especially at a time when its legitimacy is evidently at an all-time low and is rapidly sinking further.

Indeed, things seem to have all gone wrong for PM Najib.

He started off with grand talk of reform and giving Malaysians more freedom. Just a few days after becoming the prime minister, on 7 April 2009, he boldly declared: “If we are truly to build a democracy that is responsive to the needs of the people, we need a media – both old and new – that is empowered to responsibly report what they see, without fear of consequence.”

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Of course this was three long years ago, before the personnel from some of the media he was talking about were soundly beaten to a pulp by his boys in blue one Saturday afternoon in April.

But, nonetheless, over these years, as if to constantly divert our attention, these words have been supplemented by even more words, empty slogans and even emptier promises.

The 1Malaysia spiel, for example, has certainly been flogged to death, despite his deputy and an assortment of his ‘ketuanan Melayu’ mates continuing to make a mockery of the slogan.

Seemingly empty talk

But even if he’s not been consistent, Najib has certainly been persistent, especially with his seemingly empty talk about ‘transformation’, ‘freedom’, and Malaysia’s ability to become ‘the best democracy’ around.

And not surprisingly, despite the continuous missteps, there are those in his administration who evidently feel that something, anything, needs to be done to stem the tide, to help make the regime look acceptable, even if it’s nothing more than just smoke and mirrors.

One such person who tries but evidently isn’t very good at it is arguably the PM’s chief propagandist, the Information, Communication and Culture Minister, Rais Yatim.

In his latest foray, Rais announced in early June that ‘for the first time ever’, non-BN political parties may promote their manifestos on RTM or other broadcasters.

But before we could all go out and celebrate this ‘great’ breakthrough, the old man went and spoilt it all – reminding us that this, after all, is Malaysia – by outlining various rather ridiculous conditions.

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This includes the condition that such broadcasts can only begin once Parliament is dissolved and the campaigning period starts.

The fact that Rais “did not state how much airtime would be given or the conditions that parties had to comply with to access the facility” really should make us cautious about this ‘opening’ up of the media to all parties concerned.

Indeed, firstly, why are the ‘guidelines’ – government imposed at that – being provided only at the beginning of the campaign period, without any discussion with the interested and affected parties?

Second, will all parties be given equal time in the same time slots? It would make a mockery of the facility if, for instance, the opposition coalition and other non-BN parties are provided time slots that have small audiences, hence minimum reach, to promote their manifestos.

Indeed, more conditions have now been imposed. The most insidious is the one that disallows live broadcasts of these manifestos and that the recorded ones may indeed be subject to editing – read manipulation, read distortion – by RTM.

And, of course, it has gotten sillier. Rais has since been quoted as saying that “the manifestos would be aired depending on their newsworthiness”. And you can be sure he said all that with a straight face, as comedians do.

Insulting our intelligence

By no stretch of the imagination can what is being proposed – with the conditions imposed – be interpreted as ‘free and fair access’ to the media. Indeed it yet again simply insults our intelligence for the minister and even the chairperson of the Election Commission to suggest so.

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Even a first year media studies undergraduate could tell the PM and his toadies that to begin even thinking about ‘free and fair access’ we would need to look at media ownership patterns, indeed, the concentration of media ownership in the hands of BN political parties.

We would also need to come up with ways to dismantle these undemocratic ownership structures. Equally, we would need to consider getting rid of undemocratic laws that impede free and fair access.

And looking at recent developments, we would certainly need to rethink the amendments to the Evidence Act.

So when we begin to look at it seriously – and not in a vacuous manner – ‘free and fair access’ really means much more than the handing out of ‘free’ airtime during the campaign period.

More and more of the Malaysian population are quite aware of this. Unfortunately, many of these dinosaur politicians are not, especially after all these years of not being able to recognise ‘democracy’ even when they tripped over it.

Rom Nain is an Aliran member based in Subang Jaya.

This commentary first appeared in malaysiakini.com

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