Unity and the media – Part 1

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Photo credits: uppercaise

Repressive legal controls on the media are firmly in place in Malaysia – and they are not about to be loosened at any point soon, says Zaharom Nain.

Photo credits: uppercaise
Photo credit: uppercaise

Events leading up to GE13 in May and since have once again led to the Malaysian mainstream media coming under the spotlight.

Disgust has rightly been expressed by many who allege lopsided and unethical coverage of the elections by newspapers like Utusan Malaysia and television stations like TV3 and, following that, equally unethical coverage of certain, often non-Malay and non-Muslim, communities.

On the other hand, there have been a few who have expressed belief that other mainstream media, especially some local English-language dailies, appear to have become ‘bolder’ since the elections.

Of course, these ‘few’ often are journalists in these media trying hard to justify their existence and assert their credibility at a time when that credibility has been torn to shreds.

That all this rediscovered ‘boldness’ could be because there is a need to boost flagging circulation and also because the lame duck political party which owns at least one of them has got little to lose now is, of course, hardly discussed.

What seems to be doing the rounds now is this often-timid assertion that the mainstream Malaysian media, despite the divisive, hateful discourse of that rag, Utusan, can still unite Malaysian society in this uncertain period.

This belief that the media can – and do – contribute to the abstract notion of ‘national unity’ is reminiscent of the ideas proposed by the, mainly Western, rebuilding modernists of the 1950s and 1960s.

They believed – almost fervently – in the ability of the media (television then) to transform society. Indeed, this was, after all, the post-war period of rebuilding war-torn countries and many newly independent states at the end of empire and the beginning of the Cold War.

The modernists, led by the likes of W W Rostow, Wilbur Schramm and Daniel Lerner, felt that for these supposedly ‘new’ societies, capitalism was the economic model to emulate, democracy was the political answer, and pluralism was the cultural solution.

Of course, without going into a long, boring discussion of all this, the belief then, as evidently is the belief in many societies in this region now, is that the media would play a central role in putting all this into place in these ‘developing’ societies. And, following that, helping to ‘glue’ these societies together, somehow uniting each new nation.

And so the story goes on. At one conference after another, policy makers, journalists and even media academics seem to love to talk, discuss, waffle, pontificate about what the media can do – how television, broadcasting generally, the press, of course, and, now, the new and social media can change the world. Indeed, how all these technologies can forge national unity, build peace, etc, etc.

The elephant in the room

And when they do that – when they have this warm feeling as academics, policy makers, journalists and broadcasters that they (and the media they work with) are, in a manner of speaking, ‘changing the world’ – often they simply refuse to see the elephant in the room.

And what, then, is this elephant?

Offhand, I would contend that this big elephant is called power relations.

More specifically, these would incorporate media ownership, media control, repressive laws and state-market collusion.

Let’s take Malaysia as an example.

In the 2013 World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Frontiers , out of 179 countries, Malaysia ranked 145, down from 122 in 2012.

Indeed, many of the countries in this region didn’t fare very well either, with the Philippines at 147, Singapore at 149, Myanmar at 151, Pakistan at 159, Laos at 168 and Vietnam at 172.

At any rate, as far as Malaysia is concerned, whatever the protestations of the regime and its minions in the media, media ownership and control continue to play a central role in muzzling the media, leading to this latest ranking.

In September 2011, Najib Abdul Razak announced various reforms that were to take place to make Malaysia “the best democracy” around. But, of course, talk is cheap, even when coming from a prime minister.

Since then, of course, the oppressive Printing Presses and Publications Act (1984) has been amended.

Previously, all regular publications in Malaysia needed to get a new printing licence yearly. And it was up to the Home Affairs Ministry to provide – or not provide – the approval.

With the amendment, publications now only needed to apply once ever for a licence. But the irony is that, the ministry concerned can still revoke the licence at any point in time.

Hence, as the popular saying goes, ‘same old, same old’.

The point is, repressive legal controls on the media are firmly in place in Malaysia. And they are not about to be loosened at any point soon, since these controls provide the regime with so much undemocratic power.

Equally, in terms of media ownership, state-run and state-owned media have very little – if any – notion of what ‘public service’ means.

While this is certainly not peculiar to Malaysia, it nonetheless needs to be re-stated that ‘public service’ is not – and should never be – about government service, government propaganda and/or government spin and lies.

Indeed, studies we in the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus (UNMC), together with the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), conducted on 28 media during GE13 illustrate the uneven/unbalanced nature of coverage by publicly funded state-run institutions, like the national news agency Bernama and, of course, Radio Television Malaysia (RTM).

To put it bluntly, when push comes to shove, there is no independence, there is no autonomy, there is no sense of fair play or balance as far as Malaysian state run media is concerned.

This piece was first published in malaysiakini.com

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Zaharom Nain

Prof Zaharom Nain, an Aliran executive member, is a media academic based in Kuala Lumpur.

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