The Barisan Nasional government has surprisingly admitted that RTM is its mouthpiece! Whether he did this so inadvertently or after being flustered while searching for a ‘clever’ reply to allegations that RTM news reports and programmes in general were politically biased, Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin stated in no uncertain terms (in a television news report on 15 November 2007) that Radio and Television Malaysia (RTM) is a government department.
This is the statement of the century by our government, which has always been big on the ‘window-dressing’ principles of a democracy that it only pays lip service to. It is now abundantly clear to the Malaysian public and the world at large, that our mainstream media, especially RTM, is directly controlled by the government.
Malaysians are familiar with laws intended to muzzle the media and keep the right of free expression to a minimum. The government deems this basic human right a privilege reserved for itself and all who are willing to toe its line. Thus it has encouraged and nurtured self-censorship amongst writers and journalists in the country’s mainstream media, turning the voice of the supposedly ‘independent’ privately owned media into a whimper. The government has killed the dynamism of the media, which could have challenged its record of poor governance and allowed the public space to air their decent views.
Thanks to Bersih, the coalition of NGOs for Free and Fair Elections, for creating an environment of challenge to a ruling party, unused to democratic practices, that has held the country in its grip since Independence.
RTM is funded by Malaysian tax-payers who have still to realise and learn that they have a right to withdraw their support for a ruling party that squanders their hard-earned income on prestige projects, backs crony companies, keeps itself in power through vote-buying at every election, and stifles the Opposition by controlling media coverage.
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The latest, useless project was to send some academic to space, riding on an international space programme, to which tax-payers had to contribute. The government called this ‘adding prestige’ to the country’s name internationally – though it probably served more the interests of those with vested interests than being of any use to the ordinary Malaysian.
The mainstream newspapers are increasingly becoming government advertisement brochures, to sell the country to foreign investors, as well as propaganda material. All the hype about freedom of expression is just what it is: merely hype and nothing else. The ruling party’s spin-doctors must keep busy spinning illusions for the consumption of the electorate. One can only get constipated after taking in all those illusions.
The good thing is that the truth is seeping out. The thousands that turned up near Dataran Merdeka on 10 November were not phantom voters or phantom members of the ruling coalition. They were flesh-and-blood people who braved police water cannons, tear gas and possible brutality. Incidences of police brutality during their charge on peaceful protestors were perhaps given minimal publicity. Some observant viewers said certain television reports testified to random attacks on members of the public.
In this action, the public has spoken and may continue to speak wordlessly, energised by an objective the political Opposition and civil society will not be diverted from. If the ruling Barisan Nasional doggedly insists on pushing it hard-line allegedly autocratic ‘one-party state’ rule down the electorate’s throat, public reaction remains to be seen. The electorate remain unpredictable, due to their fear of the unknown and may ironically opt for a “ better- the- devil- you- know- than- the- devil- you- don’t” compromise, as they have done in past elections.
It will depend on the proportion of the electorate who still place hope in the Barisan Nasional despite its overt ‘war on democracy’ by the suppression of free expression by the Opposition, civil society groups and conscientious objectors. Public political awareness and realism of the consequences of the choices they make coupled with the question of whether a majority of voters prefer piecemeal solutions to their problems will largely influence the results of the forthcoming polls.