An indictment of Malaysia's media

M Bakri Musa
Nov 22, 07

If you are a Malaysian and have to rely only on the mainstream media for news, you could be excused for being befuddled over what happened in Kuala Lumpur on Nov 10.

You would have been confounded too, 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 their 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, but their functions are nothing more than as chief errand boys and girls for the establishment. They accede only too willingly to orders from their political masters.
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 declining circulation, readership and influence attest to the lack of credibility of newspapers.
These are eagerly read only by members of the ruling coalition, 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 coalition’s newsletter.
Followers, not leaders
The 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 tape’ purportedly showing a politically connected lawyer fixing judicial appointments with a senior judge was exposed not in the newspapers, but rather in Internet news portals and blogs.
Similarly, the government’s purchase of a luxurious Airbus jet for the use of the prime minister was revealed by Raja Petra Kamaruddin’s He was able to secure such details as the exorbitant costs, extravagant customisation, and tail number.
Time and again the government (as well as the mainstream media) have 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 polarising 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 portals like Malaysiakini and commentary portals like Malaysia-Today have become a roaring success, regularly registering daily hits in excess of millions. The mainstream media would be ecstatic to have a fraction of those figures.
It is a singular tribute to former premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad that he granted freedom to the Malaysian cyber-world. When he did it, he was not in the least concerned with citizens’ rights to independent information – it was more to attract investors to his Multimedia Super Corridor who 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.
M BAKRI MUSA is a surgeon in Silicon Valley, California and the author of The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia. His views o­n Malaysia can be stated thus: Ours is a diverse nation; we can accept and celebrate this reality or by default, it becomes a liability.