An Indictment of Malaysia’s Media

by M. Bakri Musa

Editors and journalists serve as nothing more than as chief errand boys and girls for the establishment.

If you were a Malaysian and had relied only on the mainstream media for news, you could be excused for being befuddled over what happened in Kuala Lumpur on the Saturday of November 10, 2007. You would be confounded too on the day before to see the normally busy streets eerily empty except for police trucks and personnel. Tourists could be excused into thinking that they were visiting a banana republic in the midst of another routine military coup.

It turned out that the only folks befuddled on both days were ministers and officials. The citizens knew exactly what was going on despite the news blackout by the mainstream media. That more than anything demonstrates the irrelevance of these mainstream editors and reporters.

No amount of post event editorial contortions could alter that fact. These editors and journalists have little left of their personal pride and professional integrity; they have completely prostituted themselves to being instruments of the state’s propaganda machinery. They may have fancy titles as Group Editor or Editor-in-Chief, their functions however are nothing more than as “chief errand boys and girls” for the establishment. They acceded only too willingly to orders from their political masters.

Their once informative news pages are today filled with nothing more than ministerial speeches and press releases. Their formerly critical and influential Op-Ed columns are today reduced to carrying unashamedly toadying pieces praising the current leaders.

Malaysians are fully aware of this reality and react accordingly. The mainstream papers’ declining circulation, readership, and influence attest to their lack of credibility. These papers are eagerly read only by members of the ruling party, where the obsession is on tracking which party operatives are being featured on the front page and which ones have been relegated to the middle. The paper is effectively reduced to being the ruling party’s newsletter.

Uncurious Bystanders

The Malaysian mainstream media have failed in their basic duty to keep the public informed and holding those in power accountable. The media have become part of the establishment; their role model is Pravda.

As for any investigative journalism, it is a sad commentary that the mainstream media have remained uncurious bystanders in the major evolving public scandals. The infamous Lingam videotape purportedly showing a politically connected lawyer fixing judicial appointments with a senior judge was exposed not in the mainstream papers rather in blogs and Internet news portals. Similarly, the government’s purchase of a luxurious Airbus jet for the use of the prime minister was revealed by Raja Petra’s He was able to secure such details as the exorbitant costs, extravagant customization, and tail number.

Time and again the government (as well as the mainstream media) had to react to revelations in blogs and the alternative media.

In a plural and diverse society as Malaysia, the media have the additional and essential role in mediating the contesting and often polarizing demands of the various constituencies. The more those contests and rivalries are played out on the editorial pages the less likely they are to spill onto the streets.

Again on this important dimension, the mainstream media have failed miserably. Instead of mediating they have become active participants, adding to the divisions.

In this news and information vacuum the alternative media, especially the Internet news and commentary portals like Malaysia-Today and Malaysiakini, have been a roaring success, regularly registering daily hits in excess of millions. The mainstream media would be ecstatic to have a fraction of those figures.

Mahathir’s Legacy

It is a singular tribute to former Prime Minister Mahathir that he granted freedom to the Malaysian cyberworld. Although when he did it, Mahathir was not in the least concerned with citizens’ rights to independent information, it was more to attract investors to his Multimedia Super Corridor. They would not take kindly to any hint of censorship. This freedom albeit restricted only to the Internet may yet prove to be Mahathir’s greatest legacy. It is ironic that he would benefit personally from this initiative now that the mainstream media have completely ignored him with his being out of office.

This blooming of the Internet is the reason why Malaysians are no longer easily befuddled. On the contrary they have become better informed despite the relentless propaganda of the mainstream media.

  1. #1 by undergrad2 on Friday, 23 November 2007 - 1:43 am

    “In a plural and diverse society as Malaysia, the media have the additional and essential role in mediating the contesting and often polarizing demands of the various constituencies. “ Bakri Musa

    Bakri, I’ll have to disagree with you. Here’s why.

    Society’s plurality and diversity has nothing to do with the issue of independent, fair and balance reporting. It is also not the role of the media to mediate on the issues. The role of the media is to report in a non-partisan, balance and a fair manner.

    “The more those contests and rivalries are played out on the editorial pages the less likely they are to spill onto the streets.” Bakri Musa

    It is all about freedom of speech – the cornerstone to any democracy. Public demonstration (read: freedom of speech) is the constitutional right of all Malaysians. In Malaysia this has been interpreted to mean unfortunately – until very recently, with the BERSIH demonstration – the right of Malaysians to demonstrate their support for their government.

    We should not view public demonstrations so long as they are peaceful, as undesirable or disturbing. On the other hand they are a constant reminder that ours is a free society. The problem right now is that our society is not free.

  2. #2 by Tulip Crescent on Friday, 23 November 2007 - 1:50 am

    The legacy of Mahathir’s Operation Lalang still stares us in the face more than 20 years after Operation Lalang in 1987. The core group of experienced English language journalists was somehow dismantled in a pattern of migration to Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, and New Zealand.

    The exodus created a vacuum which was filled by the present batch of so-called journalists who now fear fire once they feel any heat.

    So what does Dr Bakri Musa expect from this aggressive act of someone he so admires? Even the ruling Umno was decimated, with the present leadership shorn of any reasonable capacity for leadership.

    Just look at the antics of the Nazris and the backbenchers. Compare them to the Umno of yesteryears and you can see the stark difference in the quality.

    Malaysia certainly deserves more, much more than this present batch of clowns who close one eye, who talks about leaks (bocor) and who invites unhappy Malaysians to migrate.

    Time for a change, I guess, a sea change.

  3. #3 by sj on Friday, 23 November 2007 - 3:38 am

    Well, just do your part as a consumer and boycott those mainstream papers. You are given a chance to do the right thing for not buying their newspapers and not to put advertisements on their newspaper. So do it. Less talk, more action.

  4. #4 by limkamput on Friday, 23 November 2007 - 5:58 am

    There is no doubt the number of people relying on internet media has increased. However, a vast majority still depends on newspapers and TV for information and news. It is irony to me that sometimes opposition parties and NGOS are also quite gentle to main stream media with the hope that they too will get some coverage occasionally. Newspapers and TV stations get their income from the people. So how can we keep paying those “errand boys and girls” as described by Bakri Musa to continue abusing us on behalf of the government. I have stated many times we have to begin a systematic campaign to boycott the main stream newspapers until they capitulate. Focus on the action please. We are way beyond talking and educating. Just ask ourselves how many of us are still buying one of those newspapers. This blog must concentrate now on what we can achieve, no matter how small and slow the progress may be.

  5. #5 by undergrad2 on Friday, 23 November 2007 - 7:29 am

    “I have stated many times we have to begin a systematic campaign to boycott the main stream newspapers until they capitulate. Focus on the action please. We are way beyond talking and educating” limkaput

    Yes sir! We will do that, sir! Please don’t scold us anymore.

  6. #6 by Jackychin on Friday, 23 November 2007 - 7:48 am

    The only option the audiance have is to “doubt” the credibility of our main stream medias, and this trend is a big shame to the local medias…I feel sad for their situation…

  7. #7 by Godfather on Friday, 23 November 2007 - 7:49 am

    What do you expect of a gestapo-type administration with its own head of propaganda Zainuddeen “Goebels” Maideen ?

  8. #8 by Bigjoe on Friday, 23 November 2007 - 8:29 am

    Yes they behave like errant boys and girls but worst they are actually more like Nero playing the fiddle while the city burns. I don’t read the newspaper much relying on the net and yet I did not realize what the Hindraf rally was all about until I proactively search for the news. Until now most Malaysian don’t realize that the Hindraf valley could be a step closer to the city burning if its not handled properly?

    How many readers realize the Hindraf rally is really an attempt to indict the NEP? The smart thing about the Hindraf suit is that it does not matter if they win or lose the suit. If they lose the suit, the British courts would have decided that equality of races is guaranteed during the independence and no such ‘special right’ i.e., NEP must end and soon too.

    What does this mean? It means the Hindraf rally is really about the Indian community attempt to have an open equal dialogue with the rest of Malaysians. The question really is will the rest of Malaysian be open enough to have a dialogue with them by allowing and even supporting their peaceful action?

    Some may say the Hindraf rally really is just a follow up of recent popularity of demonstration but if it is, does it matter? This debate is important and critical for the future of this country, more than I would say the Bersih rally or even the ‘walk of justice’. It is most optimal to debate the NEP now because its most optimal to decide how we should do with it now not later. Abdullah Badawi greatest diservice to this country will inevitably be because he did not lead in this debate, that he sidestepped when it would have been best to finish the debate now and forever. There really is no better time to decide on the NEP then now because its clear removing the NEP now will be most optimal for the Malays and this country not later. If its not decided now, the cost will be future generation that has to struggle even harder for upward mobility. Evidence in developed countries suggest that upward mobility for the underprivilleged gets harder as a per capita gets high not easier.

    It is clear to me how mediocre the mind of AAB is that he cannot see that allowing this dialogue by Hindraf peacefully could be his greatest legacy. That he fails to see that he will ultimately indicted in history for being indecisive and hesitant. His policy of not one way or another is ultimately worst off for Malays and Malaysia than Dr. M’s way of excesses. That it actually benefit mostly UMNOputras and elites more than Dr. M dividing the line between the haves and haves not in Malay society beyond repair.

  9. #9 by smeagroo on Friday, 23 November 2007 - 8:42 am

    Maybe the next step is to boycott these papers and bring them down. One or even 100 fellas who boycott serves no purpose. We need something like the NOv 10 rally to jolt the system from its slumber.

  10. #10 by sotong on Friday, 23 November 2007 - 8:43 am

    Main stream media control is more important than ever before…….imagine the haves not in the Malay society realise the failure, abuse and expliotation of NEP by the elites at their great expense.

  11. #11 by Jeffrey on Friday, 23 November 2007 - 10:10 am

    “…//…Their once informative news pages are today filled with nothing more than ministerial speeches and press releases. Their formerly critical and influential Op-Ed columns are today reduced to carrying unashamedly toadying pieces praising the current leaders…//….M Bakri Musa.

    The drift of subtle suggestion here is that media was comparatively under lesser control way back but since then, and after a point (esp after TDM took over), media control has gotten steadily worse.

    I doubt this is really true.

    I suggest we have never had an independent press since day one!

    The Printing Presses Ordinance of 1948, introduced by the colonial authorities at the beginning of the Emergency, required all newspapers and printing presses to obtain a licence, to be renewed annually. The Ordinance was revised as the Printing Presses Act in 1971 to additionally provide for powers to revoke the licenses of newspapers that aggravated national sensitivities or were detrimental to national development goals.

    Since Merdeka the Alliance government had controlled the media/press to further the state’s objectives (translated the ruling coalition’s interest/objectives).

    The screws were tightened further after May 13. In 1972 [the Printing Presses Act] was amended to require ownership structure of newspapers to be Malaysian, and government controlled PERNAS took over 80% of Straits Times, later flipped to UMNO controlled Fleet Group.

    When Dr Mahathir took over, further tightening – and enforcement – under Printing Presses Publications Act in 1974 buttressed by other repressive laws eg Sedition Act & Official Secrets Act when he was challenged by Tengku Razaleigh. Lim Guan Eng’s civil rights were violated when convicted under both Acts when he sought redress of a young Malay girl suffering from the lust of an older UMNO chieftain – what a perversity of justice!

    In terms of freedom of expression in public domain, Malaysians, in spite of the general blanket of silence and self censorship still abound, actually increasingly exercise more of it today than years before – in spite of the media controls – thanks to Cyberspace which the government here due to Multimedia Super Corridor’s guarantees have not really sought to control as compared to (say) the Singapore government notwithstanding the Malaysian government has the legal means to do so via the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission Act (1998) and the Communications and Multimedia Act (1998).

    TDM does not deserve any tribute opr gratitude because he ain’t thinking about the democratic space but more of realizing his pet project MSC.

    Under his regime, he manacled the press and media to ensure the ruling coalition and himself stayed in and had a yet stronger grip over political power; he brooked no dissent; he fanned racial and religious issues (NEP, racial polarization, marginalistation of English & 20 years of unabashed Islamization leading to deepening of religious divide) pushed for development of infrastructure via privatization which, whilst increasing prosperity, also elevated corruption to a state of art.

    On balance, whatever may be said of he being a strong leader, his tangible achievements on hardware development are far outweighed by the negatives in terms of intangibles, political culture and software development of the people, and the legacy of problems he bequeathed to us in terms of nation building will haunt generations to come like a spectre. Bottomline we cannot convince ourselves yet that whatever mistakes he had done were done with the nation’s interest at heart rather than self interest.

  12. #12 by Jong on Friday, 23 November 2007 - 10:24 am

    Well said Bigjoe! I agree with what you said. Two days to Hindraf peaceful rally, let’s hope this village idiot will come to his senses.

    He’s side-stepping every major issues facing this country because he’s at a loss, certainly has been for the past 4 years and has not provided the leadership that’s expected of him. He does not know how. He doesn’t know what actually is going on in the country of which he is the Prime Minister! He is plain incapable and a great liability to BN/UMNO, …he’s an idiot what else!

  13. #13 by Jong on Friday, 23 November 2007 - 11:10 am

    ” A village idiot ” – he may have been the choice as a result of Dr Mahathir’s self-interest but, this doesn’t mean UMNO has to be stuck with this idiot since he is indeed a political liability. They may still turn things around, that is if there is any ‘jantan’ left in the UMNO to save it?

    The trouble is, it’s no secret most Malaysians know too well, there is not a single suitable candidate among the top 3 of UMNO leaders-in-waiting, or is there?

  14. #14 by greenacre on Friday, 23 November 2007 - 11:35 am

    Fellow bloggers “limkamput” had stated it. Systematic protest against mainstream news media. Well I still read them and subscribe monthly. Why I ask myself? well there a thousand things a newspaper can bring to the fore in a few pages which I can share with all in family and friends. I can cut out a make a copy to keep to pass on.

    Despite this , I call on the ‘Bersih’ group to organize a demonstration by showing to this media barons that we do not tolerate their puppy behaviour. Select a day in every week and inform all and sundry including all advertisers of the day that the public will stop buying. I will tell my deliveryman to stop on those day. A march of a thousand miles begins with one small step…’Bersih’ let it be soon. I am ready!

  15. #15 by mendela on Friday, 23 November 2007 - 11:51 am

    How many % of Malaysian population have access to Internet? 5%? 10%?

    How many rural area folks use computers? 3%?

    Why there is no equavalent of The Sun in Bahasa and Chinese languages?

    I think The Sun must provide Saturday and Sunday issues too.

  16. #16 by limkamput on Friday, 23 November 2007 - 2:24 pm

    We are beyond intellectual debate on what constitutes free media and did Malaysia enjoy free media before. Just boycott the main stream newspapers from NOW. DO IT NOW. When the election date is nearer, the damage caused by spineless newspapers (who editors are nothing but intellectually corrupt) will be even worse. Newspaper editors are prostitutes in three piece suites. So, please tell them not to insult the prostitutes.

  17. #17 by AhPek on Friday, 23 November 2007 - 2:47 pm

    you are spot on by simply stating ‘STOP BUYING NEWSPAPERS NOW!’
    Incidentally I’ve stopped buying 10 months ago and if we can all do that and influence our friends to do that the impact will be tremendous. No need to organise or to allot certain days to stop buying. Just do it NOW1

  18. #18 by pratamad on Friday, 23 November 2007 - 3:41 pm

    Bakri says “The citizens knew exactly what was going on despite the news blackout by the mainstream media.”

    I would like to caution that too many Msians are indeed unaware of what happened. Case in point, my family at my hometown who rely solely on mainstream media for news. When I showed them the Yellow Wave photos through my Internet-connected laptop, they got the shock of reality.

    So may I urge every concerned citizen to do anything in however small way to fight this hopeless mainstream media. Print photos and distribute them. Load photos (and Lingam video) onto your handphone and share them around. Anything you can imagine. Each of us should behave as a leader of democracy and basic human rights.

  19. #19 by Tulip Crescent on Friday, 23 November 2007 - 4:17 pm

    Dear Jeffrey

    When we got Merdeka, we had media freedom, though not absolute freedom.

    Then Umno started to buy over the Utusan Melayu and this caused a strike by the Malay language journalists, including Ahmad Said who has written a book on that. We also had the late poet called Usman Awang (hope I remember the name correctly). They fought against the possible Umno ownership. Of course, they lost.

    After the 1969 riots, the situation got even worse.

    There was what I called a false dawn when Mahathir took over with Datuk (as he then was, now Tun) Musa Hitam as his deputy. Datuk Musa gave senior editors an assurance that the press can continue with its job to provide feedback. Thus, we had a short time when investigative journalism, within limits, were allowed.

    After Datuk Musa fell from grace in 1986, the situation took a radical change.

    Of course, the last nails of press freedom was driven into the coffin after Operation Lalang in 1987.

    So, there were difference phases, though these phases saw the situation getting from bad to worse, with a “false dawn” on the horizon in between.

    I am recalling this from pure memory as a former journalist with more than 20 years in Malaysian journalism and some more years in international journalism.

  20. #20 by limkamput on Friday, 23 November 2007 - 5:55 pm

    NO need to talk toO much, just stop buying main stream newspapers NOW. NO amount of talking and debating is going to change things. For once just STOP BUYING MAIN STREAM NEWSPAPERS. DO IT NOW.

  21. #21 by waterfrontcoolie on Friday, 23 November 2007 - 6:31 pm

    authoritarian government is acceptable if it is honest, not corruptable, and with a sincere objective of helping the very poor of the country. We do have an example or two around. In the current situation in our country, none of the adjectives above describes it. The last GE seems to be the greatest mistake of the Malaysians, maybe they were conned into believing that the smiling and self-proclaimed GOD fearing man was indeed God-sent. After 4 years, we all found out the truth, and since he used the ALL MIGHTY for his nefarious motive, then he would have to answer to HIM for using HIS name in vain.
    So to all Malaysians, your only chance would be to reduce BN’s majority to less than 60%, this would be the most you can dream of. At this juncture talking about the man who really screwed up the country is a little too late. He was the greatest shyster on the world stage and every 3rd world leader would worship him to seek his magic formula, just look around, John Mugabe and now in the making CHavez, seeking eternal kingship! we all will stay in the 3rd world for many years to come.

  22. #22 by Marathonrunner on Friday, 23 November 2007 - 10:35 pm

    I totally stopped buying main stream newspapers since January 2007.So, save your money and visit Uncle Lim’s blog more frequent.
    I am pretty sure you will not regret for your action.

  23. #23 by wits0 on Saturday, 24 November 2007 - 12:48 pm

    I have largely not relied/sub/bought the darn noosepapers for 2 decades and have avoided the local TVs for a decade. I survived and is quite happily satisfied. I won’t pay to get insulted by them.

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