The lopsidedness of the ownership and control of the mainstream media injures the democratisation process in Malaysia, observes Mustafa K Anuar.
Introduction – Media, society and democracy
Democracy entails the freedom of citizens to express their views in the public domain. It provides them the opportunity to exercise the right to engage in discussions or debates and to offer criticism that collectively contributes to the common good of a society. This public dialogue is crucial to the notion of citizens partaking of a decision-making process in a thriving democracy. It is in this context that the role of the mass media becomes prominent because they are expected to provide the necessary platform for public discourse. But in order for citizens to express themselves adequately, it is important that they all have easy and equal access to the supposedly free and responsible media.
The role of the mass media in society becomes all the more crucial and urgent when general elections emerge. This is because the media, if free and fair, would bring about a situation where the voters can make an informed choice about the contending candidates in the general elections. The electorate would be able to get sufficient information about the competing candidates and political parties particularly from a fair and independent media. However, as we all know, the mainstream media in Malaysia are not fair and independent to start with. This has got to do with the laws governing the media as well as the ownership and control of the media.
The state of the Malaysian mainstream media
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The restrictive laws that govern the media are principally the Printing Presses and Publications Act (1984) and the Communications and Multimedia Act (1998). These are laws that help shape the print and electronic media in the country so that those who own the mainstream newspapers, television and radio stations are closely aligned to the ruling party, and in turn are inclined to be BN-friendly.
Although there are many newspapers, radio and TV stations in the country, they are however owned by a select few, namely Media Prima, Huaren Holdings and Utusan Melayu group, among others, all of which are BN-friendly.
The lopsidedness of the ownership and control of the mainstream media injures the democratisation process in Malaysia because the Opposition invariably gets little, if any, access to the mainstream media. Worse, the past general elections witnessed the demonisation of the Opposition by these media.
The media and general elections – case studies of 1990, 1999 and 2004
In the 1990 general elections, for instance, the news reports highlighted mainly the activities of the incumbent party, apart from putting the Opposition in a negative light. The Opposition had difficulty even to buy advertising space in the mainstream newspapers as a means of imparting their views and policies to the general public.
TV commentaries and talk shows were basically a convenient platform to only promote a positive image of the incumbent BN.
In the case of radio, RTM allocated 13 minutes radio airtime for the major political parties, including the Opposition, to make their political party broadcasts. The political scripts, however, were scrutinised by the radio stations 24 hours before broadcast. Additionally, these party broadcasts were not advertised beforehand, thus reducing the impact of these broadcasts.
The performance of the mass media in the 1999 general elections was generally similar to that of the 1990s. In fact, the mainstream media were expected to play a major role to woo the disenchanted electorate in the wake of the Reformasi movement of the period. A lot of press coverage was given to the BN and its leaders who collectively were portrayed as being caring towards the people. In contrast, the Opposition was painted as a disunited collective that was not to be trusted by the general public.
In the 2004 general elections, the mainstream media were similarly biased towards the incumbent BN and unfriendly to the Opposition. The coverage of the media centred around the supposedly ‘affable Pak Lah’.
Unfair treatment of the opposition parties – Both the print and electronic media must adhere to their professional code of ethics, particularly to provide free and fair access to all parties.
Media distortions of the Opposition – Equally important, the media must shy away from the practice of demonising the Opposition through their news reports, opinion columns, documentaries and letters to the editor.
No right of reply to the parties maligned – To be fair, the media must accord the right of reply to parties who have been criticised or condemned.
Political advertisements that are confined to the incumbent party – The media must provide equal opportunity for the parties concerned to advertise themselves and their political manifestos. There has to be an agreed ceiling to the amount of political advertisements that can be bought by the parties concerned.
Dr Mustafa K Anuar is honorary secretary of Aliran.