Many media systems in this world – certainly those in oppressive regimes that thrive on disunity – have no real conception of what genuine public service is, writes Zaharom Nain.
It has been clear since the 13th general election (GE13) of 5 May that because there is no genuine understanding, let alone the practice, of public service, it is well-nigh impossible for the state-run media to assist in developing genuine national unity.
For example, soon after the announcement of the results of GE13, a clearly dejected and, possibly, vengeful Najib Abdul Razak openly declared that what had happened was a “Chinese tsunami”.
He blamed Chinese Malaysians for the poor showing of his BN regime. And this coming from a prime minister who, for the duration of his tenure, had never stopped talking about the idea of 1Malaysia.
Despite criticisms and correctives by those who had been studying the voting patterns, this clearly racial, if not racist, view of Najib went unchallenged by the mainstream media, including the state-run media.
And when the outwardly racist and divisive Malay daily, Utusan Malaysia – a daily closely aligned, mind you, to Najib’s political party, Umno, no less – published one front-paged article after another, attacking the Chinese Malaysian community, not a squeal of protest was heard from the other mainstream Malaysian English and Malay language media, broadcast or print, private or public.
It was left to the Internet media to take such a stand. And even then, it could be said that, overall, it was a muted stand.
- The complacency – possibly fear – of the state-run Malaysian media notwithstanding, a quick look at the pattern of oligopolistic control over the mainstream commercial media in Malaysia will perhaps explain to us why there is evidently state-market collusion and why media independence remains a pipe-dream;
- The Malaysian media conglomerate, Media Prima – comprising all four free-to-air commercial television stations; the newspapers New Straits Times, Berita Harian and Harian Metro; outdoor advertising and three FM commercial radio stations – is said to be owned by Umno through proxies and currently controlled by Najib’s allies;
- The Utusan Malaysia group, which publishes Utusan Malaysia and Kosmo, is also allegedly owned by Umno;
- The Star media group comprising the largest selling English language newspaper, The Star, and three radio stations, is owned by the MCA; and
- The main Chinese Malaysian newspapers – Sin Chew, Guang Ming, Nanyang Siang Pau and China Press – are all owned by Media Chinese International Ltd, which belongs to Sarawakian timber tycoon Tiong Hiew King, who also owns titles in Hong Kong, Canada and Papua New Guinea.
What is clear, certainly in the context of Malaysia, is that neither the state/regime nor the market are benign entities.
Indeed, up until recently, the regime leaders would talk about being inclusive, uniting the various groups in society, yet enact and perpetuate policies, often based on race, that are divisive.
BN regime not opposed to racists
And, on top of that, as we saw in GE13, clearly the regime is not opposed to openly supporting a couple of outwardly racist individuals as candidates in the elections.
It is this wider context of political power – and the implications of the practice of that power – that need to be looked at BEFORE we can talk about the nice things that the media can do to unite the nation and, of course, make the world a better place.
After all, we are all, at least in Malaysia and I daresay in many other regimes as well, part of these power structures and, often enough, are constrained by them.
And often times, surprise, surprise, we help to legitimise and perpetuate them.
But, surely, you might say, things are much different with the Internet or new media. That the Internet is much freer.
But even there, you’d probably be wrong. According to the Singapore (ST):
From June 1 (2013), websites that regularly report Singapore news and have significant reach will require individual licences to operate.
The MDA (Media Development Authority) will require websites to be individually licensed once they meet two criteria: if they report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore’s news and current affairs over a period of two months, and have at least 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore each month over a period of two months.
A pattern of increasing, undemocratic control
Now, I ask, what does that sound like to you? An independent Internet media? A media capable of independently, autonomously discussing what constitutes `national unity’, however vaguely the term is conceived?
A media capable of enriching the debates surrounding the equally elusive concept of `peace’ and how we as members of society can work towards building peace domestically and internationally?
Of course not.
And this pattern of increasing, undemocratic control is, of course, not peculiar to the island state of Singapore.
We in Malaysia – or at least the regime – do this very often and very blatantly. There have been police raids on the Internet news portal Malaysiakini and numerous police reports made against it by the regime’s supporters.
More, in May 2012, Amendment 2 to the Evidence Act, notoriously called Section 114A, was passed by the Malaysian Parliament. This amendment allows for unwarranted surveillance online and threatens to increase self-censorship.
Even more recently, the new Home Minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, has ominously stated that he wishes to work with the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to “monitor unlawful social media content”.
More of a threat to freedom of expression
You can bet your bottom dollar, given this regime’s dreadful record, that that was meant more as a threat to freedom of expression than an assurance to make things better.
To conclude, let me get back to the implicit question posed at the beginning of this discussion, namely, can media help in enabling people to live together peacefully and identify themselves as part of a single whole?
As evident from my discussion thus far, the best answer I could give to that would be, “Yes, possibly, but…”
Indeed, the `buts’, as I’ve tried to show, and as most of us are surely aware of, are considerable. The media – both mainstream and alternative – if we still need reminding, do not exist in a vacuum.
We, members of the media, academia and civil society generally, can of course design grand plans for the media. And dream about the media fostering ‘unity’.
But we would look rather stupid if we disregard the fact that many media systems in this world – certainly those in oppressive regimes, like Malaysia, that shamelessly call themselves `democracies’ – have no real conception of what genuine public service is.
And they have even less time to devote to forging unity.
Especially when the very regimes they help maintain and legitimise thrive on disunity.
This article was first published in Malaysiakini.