Anil Netto | Feb 5, 08
IPS – Fed-up with what they see as biased and distorted reporting, a group of concerned Malaysians has launched a campaign urging the public to boycott newspapers ahead of a general election widely expected in March.
The print media are largely controlled by parties in the ruling coalition parties or business interests close to them. Already pro-establishment in their coverage, newspapers usually turn into full-blown propaganda tools of the ruling coalition during the election campaign period, say critics.
The call for a ‘Paper-less Tuesday’ – calling on the public to not to buy once a week for a start -was launched last Monday by a working committee under the ‘People’s Parliament’ initiative. It provides an avenue for cyber-activism and space “for constant gripers to go beyond venting and instead set and shape the reform agenda, and thereafter to act on their resolutions”.
The working committee brings together a range of concerned individuals from diverse backgrounds who are concerned over how news reports ‘have not always tally with facts’’. Among them are lawyer-cum-blogger Haris Ibrahim; cyber-columnist and former journalist Helen Ang, and former teacher-turned-blogger Bernard ‘Zorro’ Khoo.
They have launched an online petition to muster public support for their campaign and are selling yellow T-shirts bearing the message, ‘Boycott the Newspapers – No buy, No Lies’.
Some Malaysians are sceptical about the effectiveness of a boycott, noting that the last time a media boycott was attempted during the tumultuous reformasi era in the late 1990s, it had a fairly limited impact.
But Ang is unfazed, saying “We shouldn’t underestimate the impact of a campaign like this” while noting that the last boycott was carried out nearly 10 years ago.
“The whole scenario has changed now with advances in technology. We have bloggers picking up the news about the boycott, and an online signature petition has been launched,” she says.
“Mobile phone text messages have also played a key role in mobilising the public to attend protest gatherings or boycott events.”
The working committee, in a statement, warned that as the election approaches, the mainstream media’s spin-doctoring would go into overdrive, using the authorities’ tried-and-tested approach of communalism, misrepresentation and fear-mongering.
“What history has shown is that the mainstream media have always had a field day disseminating falsehood to Malaysian voters because of the uneven playing field and public space restrictions imposed by the incumbency, who are the media owners or whose owners are closely affiliated to the ruling parties,” the committee said.
In the next phase, the group hopes to create greater awareness among advertisers about the responsibility they bear – and the financial clout they possess, as advertisements are the main source of mainstream media revenue – in joining civil society to pressure for change.
Frustration of Malaysians
How are reporters in the mainstream press viewing the group’s call to boycott their newspapers?
“Journalists at our press conference were not personally hostile,” observes Ang.
“They want to do their jobs professionally; so if there was not much control from the top, they would report more freely.”
Media analyst Mustafa Kamal Anuar told IPS he felt the call for a newspaper boycott reflects the frustration among many Malaysians, especially those from the middle class, over the kind of reporting in the mainstream media.
“Such frustration becomes more prominent in this advanced information technology age, when the half-truths or factual distortions of the mainstream press contrast starkly and disturbingly with the kind of reporting practised by, say, online news portal Malaysiakini and a few other websites and blogs,” he says.
He points out that the coverage of two major protest rallies in Kuala Lumpur last November “provided ample evidence of deliberate distortions in the mainstream press coverage”.
“And things may not improve given that we’ll be facing the next general election, a time when the mainstream press and other media normally ‘misbehave’ big time,” he warns.
During the last general election campaign in 2004, Wong Kok Keong, a Malaysian teaching communication studies in the United States, carried out a content analysis of the campaign coverage by the three main English-language newspapers in the peninsula.
He found that clear bias towards the ruling coalition in all the four areas he analysed: news, opinions, letters to the editor and use of pictures.
“The most biased or the least fair and balanced in coverage was Star,” he concluded in a commentary published in the social reform journal, Aliran Monthly. “This was followed by the New Straits Times, and then TheSun.”
TheSun, he said, offered “the fairest and most balanced coverage” relative to the other two newspapers. Not surprisingly, the circulation of the free tabloid around Kuala Lumpur has since soared, surpassing the sales of the country’s top-selling paper, Star, for the same area.
But media observers are now worried that TheSun could lose its relatively independent editorial position following reports that well-connected tycoon Vincent Tan has just raised his equity stake in Nexnews, which owns the tabloid, to 88 percent. Sources said the move to consolidate the ownership of TheSun was done due to political considerations, reported Star.
“Against this backdrop (of biased election campaign reporting), the recent ownership restructuring of Nexnews makes one wonder whether it is part and parcel of a conscious attempt to further tighten the screws on the media industry,” observes Mustafa.
To provide an alternative to Malaysians, especially those in rural areas who have little access to non-mainstream viewpoints, the People’s Parliament is looking at producing an experimental alternative news summary for dissemination.
“This may help to gauge the willingness of civil society in general to get in on this initiative,” Haris says.
“Like a great many other civil society efforts, the success or otherwise of this endeavour hangs very much on how our fellow citizens respond to this call to try to help shape the things to come in the near future.”
Cyber-strike against mainstream media