LAST_UPDATEMon, 31 Aug 2015 12am

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Media Freedom In Malaysia: Championing Truth Or Promoting Self-Interest?

The 2015 World Press Freedom Index released earlier this year found that press freedom experienced a 'worldwide deterioration' over the past year with over two-thirds of the countries surveyed showing a downturn in press freedom, including developed nations like United States and Singapore. Malaysia surprisingly maintained its 147th place ranking from last year.

Why then do NGOs and Opposition groups continue to trumpet the lack of press freedom in Malaysia? While newspapers, radio and television do operate only with government license and publications require a license, the Internet in Malaysia has been left largely unregulated since former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad (Tun M) launched the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC Malaysia) in 1996, famously promising that the 'country would never censor the Internet'.Pic: TheAntDaily

Yes, Tun M's vision has succeeded beyond his expectations to the extend he has found reason to retract his earlier promise.

“When I said there should be no censorship of the Internet, I really did not realise the power of the Internet, the power to undermine moral values, the power to create problems and agitate people,” he was quoted as saying by The New Sunday Times in June 2012.

He found reason to publicly voice his suspicion of the Internet again in August last year in his famous blog post.

“Not knowing the power of the Internet, I promised that we (speaking as the Prime Minister of Malaysia) would not censor it. But today I have changed my mind.”

“I have done so because the players, including those controlling the servers, have been applying their own censorship of what can appear in this alternative media. I myself have suffered from such censorship,” he wrote.

Well, you then can't blame the present government of the day for trying to exert some control and impose a regulatory framework on the Internet and the fast-growing online news segment.

Today, news can be accessed at the touch of our fingertips. Technological advancement allows us to pick and choose the type and content of the news that we want to read.

The result of loose government regulation over online news paved the way for the rise of local news Web sites which have no reservations publishing blatantly critical news and commentary about the ruling government which the mainstream media would not dare touch. Now Malaysians eager to feast on a diet of anti-government news only had to turn to their local online news site instead of foreign media.

The migration of readers from printed mainstream newspapers towards online news started less than ten years ago but the trend has picked up speed as internet access reaches more people and at faster speeds, to the extent that many Malaysians now choose to catch up on their news on their handphones.

News reports bombard us indiscriminately from multiple sources daily. Are Malaysians now more media savvy that they can separate deliberate propaganda from real news and sniff out censored reporting from unbiased commentary?

How does mainstream media continue to stake its dominance and claim its validity as a vital source of impartial news given the public perception that mainstream news is controlled by the government.?

While social media and online news websites are viewed as more independent, is what is reported by them really from the true observations of journalists or coloured by the news organization policy to support certain vested interests and therefore compromising true integrity?

Mainstream Press vs Online News: Challenges Faced By Media Practitioners In Both Fields

According to Mia (not her real name) who works as a journalist with a major local online news portal, media in Malaysia is divided into two major components.

“Firstly, there is the mainstream print media which is heavily regulated to ensure compliance with the Printing Presses and Publication Act 1984 (PPPA) and Sedition Act 1948.

“Secondly, online news portals operate in a relatively unregulated environment and they are easily manipulated to support the vested interests of certain groups. I strongly feed that mainstream print media have very little room to practice press freedom independently.

“There have already been many documented cases of publications having their printing licences revoked due to publication of content deemed to be seditious or heavily critical of the ruling government, the recent examples being The Edge and The Heat.

“Such actions pose major obstacles for journalists to carry out their duties independently in getting the news to their readers and they have to be more creative in how they present the facts to readers. Our country is a fast rising star among developing nations in terms of economic development, but when it comes to press freedom, we have achieved very little.

“To become a developed nation also requires that its citizens have access to unbiased news and a variety of viewpoints so our country has much to achieve in this aspect,” she shared her critical observation of press freedom in the country with Malaysian Digest.

She further noted that the mainstream media's excessive censorship by legislative authorities leads to bland reporting that the public already perceive as biased.

She believes that if readers are allowed to arrive at their own conclusions after reading both sides of the argument, it would create a more mature public audience who can arrive at their own conclusions rather than blindly following what the ruling government dictates.

“As it is, most mainstream media are already labelled as pro-government mouthpieces in the way they shape news stories to be presented to the public. For instance, an established national TV station which reaches majority of Malaysians is clearly pro-government biased. This is because the management of the TV station is controlled by the ruling authorities.

She feels strongly that mainstream media and online news should move in tandem in responding to the changing times and nature of how Malaysians access their news.

They should not be afraid to report the truth for the sake of the people and the nation.

“The rise of online news media really started to take hold after the 2008 General Elections. Malaysians seeking access to uncensored news on the 'reformasi' movement went directly to online news sources. Since then online news has gained a foothold as the main source of publicity and propaganda for the Opposition.

“Online news portals should take advantage of the relatively loose government regulation to publish unbiased reports. Heavy censorship and distortion of the facts presented is unnecessary harsh actions on writers and short-changing the public.

“If online news portals do not provide their readers with unbiased news from all perspectives, then they have failed as a voice of reason and conscience to provide check and balances to a democratically elected government,” she concluded. 

Fahmi, who works with an established mainstream news publication in Malaysia, shares his perspective having worked for over 10 years in this field.

While he was reticent about sharing his opinion on whether he concurs with popular perception that the mainstream media are little more than government mouthpieces, he still feels he has the freedom to practice as a journalist within the confines of the PPPA.

“I do not deny the fact that online news has definitely grabbed the attention of the younger generation in Malaysia for their unparalleled speed and ease of access in getting the news to their readers compared to the print media.

“Although mainstream media now also provides room for both pro government and Opposition voices to be heard, it is doubtful whether this alone can draw readers back to the traditional print media.

“The presence of online news and the ever present role of social media in the lives of the younger generation proves to be a stumbling block.

“I see that electronic news is set to play an even bigger role in Malaysia in the future as both pro government and Opposition-led propaganda takes their battle online.

“However, the mainstream media will always have a niche in Malaysian society as there will always be an established readership sector that want their news to be presented in that way,” he observed.

A Veteran Journalist Shares His Views

Who better to comment on the changing times of news reporting in Malaysia than someone who has been at the forefront of journalism in Malaysia for over the last 40 years?

Malaysian Digest spoke to Datuk A Kadir Jasin, who honed his skills for many years at the mainstream news organization NSTP Group before leaving to a prolific career as a columnist, author, publisher and blogger.

The seasoned journalist has seen it all, the ebb and flow of power play in politics and its effect on media freedom in both the mainstream and electronic media today.

“Freedom of the press faces increasing challenges today in Malaysia as the government exerts more control over television and radio. The government has complete authority over awarding broadcasting licences to them and the decision to revoke those licences. In fact, there are some established media outlets that are outright owned by the government or government-linked representatives.

“Obviously, if a news organization is wholly owned by the government, it cannot practice news reporting in complete freedom as enshrined by our Constitution. When a news organization is controlled by the government, there is no room for the voice of the Opposition to be heard.

“For example, the television network TV3 is completely manipulated by the government. It paints a distorted picture of what is going on in UMNO, as well as in the corporate, economic and political realm in Malaysia today.

“However, access to information in this new digital era will eventually balance out the biased nature of traditional mainstream media as electronic media has gained a foothold during the crisis triggered by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's sacking from government and his imprisonment,” he shared with Malaysian Digest.

Since 2008, the exponential growth of electronic news has sparked greater press freedom. Generation Y youth who grew up in this environment bombarded by constant electronic news via social media are accustomed to this new form of journalism and press freedom. They have very little interest in mainstream media and their lives evolve around the electronic media.

Although there exist media practitioners in all media publications in Malaysia who truly understand the true calling of journalism, but they too have to toe the line and filter the way they report the news to the masses.

“Reporters are also employees at the end of the day. As long as they are under contract to a certain organization, they have an obligation to comply by the company's objectives but reporters must always hold true to their journalistic ethics which is the 'Right Of Reply'.

“A news item submitted by a reporter is their responsibility.

“No one has the right to alter the facts reported or the information derived from the reporters' interviews and if the facts have been changed, the reporter has the right to reject publication release of the news report.

“Who says online news is unbiased? Online news portals are also controlled and funded by certain parties with vested interests in Malaysia for their own gains.

“Initially, the internet in Malaysia has remained largely free of government interference but recently the government has started tightening its control over online news in the face of the political crisis rocking the nation.

“The government seems to think that the hearts and minds of the Malay race are easily corrupted. It is as if they are easily manipulated and made use off for ulterior motives.

After all, we should ask ourselves, isn't the freedom of speech enshrined in our Constitution?

Where Do Malaysians Choose To Get Their Daily News?

A quick survey of Malaysians preferences on how they get their daily news supports the popular assumption that the general public today prefer to go to the internet instead of printed newspapers for their daily news.

“When I go to online news portal sites, I choose to read the international news first so that I get a better global perspective on politics, government policies and society.” - Nurul Naqibah, student.

“I find it easier to get all the news updates from online news portals which I feel are more transparent and uncensored in putting forward opinions on current issues. Usually politics and sports are my top picks from online news portals.” - Hamzie Shahidan, student.

“For me, both sources of news cannot be fully trusted. I read the news that has been promoted by the news organizations but I don't jump to conclusion. All news published on print media as well as online are slanted to fulfill certain individual's objectives.” - Joe, fashion designer.

“I do read both sources of news but currently, I am more interested in online news. On the reporting of certain issues, I sense that the news has been slanted or censored to fulfill certain vested interests.” - Jannah, trader.

Perhaps late in the game, but more and more governments around the world have come to the realization that unfettered press freedom on the Internet is not always in the best interests of a country. Across the world from Russia to Hong Kong and Singapore as well as across most Asean countries like Thailand, Vietnam and in our own country, Malaysia, authorities have sought to curtail Internet freedom with a view to ensure political stability.

While mainstream news especially the printed media has always pride itself on accuracy in their reporting, online news often suffers from credibility issues and rampant misreporting but they were largely viewed as uncensored and unbiased.

Is that still the case?

Today, most people have realized the power of the Internet to spread news, whether real or fake. like wildfire. Whose interests are being promoted and to what extent is the news still untainted by propaganda is best judged by readers who must choose to educate themselves to differentiate truth from fiction.


- Malaysian Digest

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