The Propaganda Machine

Catholic Asian News, March 2008 issue is no level playing field in elections media coverage, writes Anil Netto
FLIP through the newspapers and you will see page after page of propaganda in support of the ruling coalition thinly disguised as “news”. “News” reports of handouts, development grants, opening ceremonies of clinics and promises and pledges. Turn on the television and it’s the same – more election propaganda!
Election fever is in the air, and many are excited about this. One reason for this heightened sense of anticipation – perhaps more so than in many mature democracies – is that popular democracy in Malaysia has largely been confined to participation in the electoral process once every four or five years. This is most unfortunate.
Catholic Social Teaching& Decision-Making
Democracy should be more than just participation in the electoral process. It should encompass public participation at the national-, state- and local-level decision-making process throughout the year.
Catholic Social Teaching tells us, among other things, that we should uphold the common good. It also emphasises the principles of subsidiarity and the preferential option for the poor. Subsidiarity means that, wherever possible, people at the local level should be involved in the making of decisions that will directly affect them. The ‘preferential option for the poor’ calls on us to ensure that policies are aimed at uplifting and empowering the poor.
Ideally, since policies and decisions should be made in the interests of the common good, ordinary people should be given an avenue to participate in the decision-making process to formulate policies that will affect them.
They must be allowed to discuss a range of policy options so that they can decide what is in their best interests. This will ensure that the most effective policies are chosen to promote the interests of the common good and that they receive popular support.
Unfortunately, the election campaign in Malaysia is not conducted on a level playing field. The public more often than not are not properly briefed on the issues that matter. Or they may not have access to a range of opinions on the various issues.
This makes it impossible for many Malaysians to make informed choices when they cast their ballots on polling day. Also, local government elections have been abolished since the 1970s, denying an important form of local democracy to the people.
Why are Malaysians so poorly informed or restricted in the range of views they receive? For this, we have to look at the various means of information dissemination available to see how limited the space is for opposition parties to put across alternative views.
Electronic Media
The electronic media – television and radio – are the most effective means of reaching out to the masses, whether in the rural or urban areas. But they are largely controlled either by state-run RTM, which often disseminates views supportive of Barisan Nasional policies, or by private firms such as Media Prima. Even though these firms may be private, they are invariably owned by business interests with close links to the BN.
Print Media
Many Malaysians read a daily newspaper. Even though the reach is not as all-encompassing as the electronic media, mainstream newspapers reach a wide audience and they are an effective means of reaching the people.
But the content in the newspapers is heavily influenced not only by the owners of the papers but by the newspapers’ main source of revenue: the corporate advertisers.
Major dailies in the various languages are owned either by political parties (as in the case of The Star, owned by the MCA) or by firms and tycoons with close links to the ruling elite. As a result, many of the newspapers are transformed into propaganda organs of the ruling coalition in the weeks leading up to the polls.
True, the Opposition parties do have their own papers such as Harakah (owned by Pas) and The Rocket (owned by the DAP). But because their circulation is restricted to a fortnightly basis, their effectiveness and reach is more limited than the mainstream newspapers.
Websites & Blogs
Websites and blogs are now an important tool for dissemination. Opposition parties tend to rely heavily on these. But websites and blog have an even smaller reach than newspapers because only those with access to the Internet can have access to alternative views.
Malaysia has a dialup Internet penetration rate of only 14.3 per 100 inhabitants and a broadband penetration rate of 4.5 per 100 inhabitants in the third quarter of 2007, according to statistics on the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission’s website.
Public Forums & Rallies
The reach of these is also small – and their target audience is confined to a particular locality.
Generally speaking, opposition rallies are better attended than the BN’s events – because most people are already aware of what the BN’s position is on a range of issues. That’s because the views of the BN are widely disseminated in the electronic and print media. Many voters therefore are more curious about the opposition’s views as they are largely not covered in the mainstream media.
But BN has an advantage in the sense that it has a wider range of suitable venues at its disposal.
The BN has far greater resources to finance the supporting literature and posters/banners to put across their views of the various issues.

Handouts and Grants

Apart from the unequal access to various media, opposition parties find the playing field is not level in other respects. For one thing, the unequal weightage in the constituency size gives less populated constituencies greater representation than those from densely populated populations.
Moreover corporate sponsors are more likely to endorse the ruling coalition parties – either subtly or not so subtly – through messages on giant billboards and newspaper advertisements.
Of course the Barisan has a huge “war-chest” from which it hands out all manner of gifts and grants to all and sundry. It denies that such handouts are attempts at vote-buying. The ruling coalition also receives assistance from various government agencies, which critics say are often abused in the run-up to the polls.
In many mature democratic countries, the government becomes a caretaker government during an election campaign, which means political parties are not allowed to use and abuse government agencies in the run-up to the polls. This concept seems alien to our Election Commission, which has been heavily criticised by various groups.
Corporate Propaganda
Often, the politics of “developmentalism” ensures that voters’ attention is focused on who can provide economic growth and the factors conducive to it such as political stability as well as provide access to government grants and funds to push through development projects.
But the playing field is not level in another respect: the discussion of issues.
Much of the debate that does occur is influenced by corporate propaganda, which serves the interests of the elite and those among the middle classes aspiring to join them.
It is not just the Barisan Nasional that subscribes to the assumptions that have been influenced by corporate propaganda. Most of the Opposition parties and civil society groups too rarely question these basic assumptions – and thus there is little place for a discussion of alternatives.
What are some of these assumptions? To give an example, it is assumed that constant economic growth, foreign direct investment and market “liberalisation” is beneficial for the country.
If the playing field for the debate was really level, then surely there would be more probing questions:

  • Will relentless economic growth wipe out poverty and ensure fair distribution of wealth?
  • The added value created by economic growth – who does it really go to?
  • A small elite group?
  • Doesn’t corporate-driven economic growth widen the gulf between the rich and the poor?
  • What is the stand of the various political parties towards the trade unions’ call for a minimum wage?
  • Is relentless economic growth environmentally sustainable?
  • Will the corporate takeover of agriculture – such as Sime Darby’s venture in the Northern Corridor and Nestle’s interest in red rice farming in Sarawak – be beneficial to farmers in the long-run?
  • Shouldn’t we be looking at environmentally friendly organic farming as a really viable alternative?
  • Is the rising crime rate a direct consequence of the alienation that people feel arising from the dehumanising work in an industrial era or the inability to fit into the system as a cog in the assembly line?
  • Should the interests of those who have capital take precedence over those who labour?

So, it is not just certain political parties which benefit from the a tilted playing field. It is also the interests of capital which benefit from certain widely believed assumptions. These assumptions are often in line with corporate propaganda. Alternative views on the economy – more humane and just ways of looking at the economy and the human person – do not find a place on this playing field. They are rarely raised even by opposition parties because they too appear influenced by the prevailing corporate propaganda.
Some Small Space
But there is some space – in alternative publications such as CANews, in blogs and websites and in face-to-face encounters with politicians doing their campaign rounds – for issues such as these to be raised. We should make full use of such avenues to air our concerns and question the basic assumptions that put the interests of capital above those of the human being.