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More media freedom but big challenges ahead under PH

  • The Malaysian media has been going through some positive developments, a year after Pakatan Harapan took over the federal administration.

By Mohsin Abdullah

I risk being labeled a Pakatan Harapan apologist but I’ll say it as it is anyway.

Under Pakatan Harapan rule the media in Malaysia is enjoying freedom as never before. And that’s a fact.

I agree with a Malay Mail Online report published in May which said after a year of Pakatan Harapan rule the media in Malaysia was going through some positive developments as the new government repealed or set aside many of the archaic laws seen as stifling press freedom in the country.

Since Pakatan Harapan took over Putrajaya, said the report, Malaysia has jumped up 22 notches in the World Press Freedom index, ranking 123rd out of 180 countries listed, based on figures obtained in May this year.

Nothing great you might say, or just a small achievement!? Maybe, but it is still a big deal considering the media in Malaysia has always been suppressed and has never been free before.

A quick throwback to events of July 1961. Incidentally I wrote about the episode for Sin Chew Daily and MySinchew.com back in 2009.

In July 1961, the Umno leadership sent party strongman from Terengganu to meet Utusan Melayu editor Said Zahari to demand that Utusan submit to its four-pronged “surrender terms”.

Utusan Melayu back then was an independent newspaper which Umno wanted to control. But Said, or Pak Said as he was fondly known, together with his journalists wanted to ensure that Utusan Melayu continued to be an independent national newspaper not controlled by any political party.

Pak Said, whom I regard as one of the best journalists in the world, always felt that only with a free policy could Utusan Melayu “become the voice of the people, fighting for the interest of the people with sincerity, integrity and courage”.

But Umno wanted Utusan Melayu to something else, that Utusan should belong to Umno and serve it alone.

Hence on July 21, 1961, Pak Said led his journalists and other workers of the newspaper to launch the famous “Mogok Utusan Melayu” strike. Sadly the strike failed. It lasted for 90 days. Umno had won.

Malaysia’s media landscape could have been very different had the strike succeeded. But with Umno’s victory, Utusan Melayu was never the same again. True enough the company grew to be Kumpulan Utusan Melayu which boasted an array of publications including also Kosmo!, it nevertheless became subservient to Umno, serving the party’s needs and demands until this day, despite the group being in dire financial straits. And never mind talks of Umno relinquishing its interests in Utusan, as many see the party still controlling it via proxies.

As I see it, Umno's victory in taking over the control of Utusan somehow paved the way for other political parties to wrest control or own newspapers. Like MCA with The Star, and MIC controlling the now defunct Tamil Nesan, just to name two.

Naturally there are others. The nation’s media outlets would be free of political control had the Utusan strike succeeded in stopping Umno back in 1961.

But as it is, the media outlets mentioned are now operating as usual. Many, including journalists, had expected Pakatan Harapan to intervene by sending “its own people” or editors perceived to be pro-Pakatan to the media organizations to introduce “PH-friendly” editorial policies. Journalists had also expected their BN-friendly editors to be shown the door.

All that did not happen. The editors who are now no more running the show left on their own accord or upon advice of their own board of directors.
The Pakatan Harapan government did not meddle with media affairs. For one, it would involve them buying shares from their political rivals and proxies something Pakatan Harapan did not want to do obviously. The other thing is its promise to ensure a free press.

Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders acknowledged press freedom received a breath of fresh air in Malaysia after Barisan Nasional lost the general elections in May last year.

It noted journalists and media outlets that had previously been blacklisted are now able to work without fear of harassment.

As Malay Mail Online sees it, the Malaysian media too could sigh in relief as the controversial fake news law has been suspended pending abolition and the mainstream media no longer have to wait for instructions of wahyu from Putrajaya to conform with the political narratives of the day.

For online news portals like MalaysiaKini and The Malaysian Insight, as I see it the positive development has “little” effect on them. This is not to say they are not appreciative of the freedom given but even during the BN days of media shackling, these portals had always been brave in pushing the envelope to the limit, often getting themselves in trouble with the authorities back then. But that had never prevented them from “being themselves”, so to speak.

A long-time media watcher agrees that news portals are continuing to report as in BN government era but “they seem to be more for ‘sexy’ news of daily goings-on instead of incisive reporting”.

As for state-owned media, RTM and Bernama, the media watcher says they are still “stuck with the old ways of pandering to the leadership and avoiding or spiking stories deemed unfavorable to Putrajaya”. But then they are state-or government-owned and I suppose that’s what government-owned media do.

Anyway It’s the so-called conventional or mainstream media that is “enjoying” this newfound freedom. At least they ought to be. After all, they now can report both sides of the divide. But admittedly they tend to be “cautious” or impose self-censorship with regards to so-called negative stories about the current government, and indulge in “apple polishing” Putrajaya as well, at times over doing it pretty much like the “good old days of BN”. But as pointed out by a journalist friend – who do you blame for this? Taking into consideration the non-interfering stance of the government.

But it's worth noting also that the mainstream media, owned by parties linked to the opposition, are still “at it” – serving the interests and pushing the agenda of their owners or should I say “political masters” without being apprehended?

Whatever the agenda, mainstream media, according to the media watcher, is “struggling to stay afloat and trying to avoid the fate of Utusan".

News publishers continue to lose readers who used to pay to read news in print but now prefer to get for free online. But some online portals are already charging for content while some are contemplating putting up paywalls.

Obviously financing is a very big element but as MalaysiaKini rightly puts it “ independent media cannot survive without independent financing”.

Just how do the media get independent financing? While they grapple with that difficult poser the media watcher reminded media “to buck up and connect with the people” – failing which “they will go the Utusan way”.

That in a nutshell are the two big challenges faced by the media today in the midst of more freedom of the press now. Oh yes, don’t forget there’s always social media where everybody seems to be a journalist. Not to mention fake news which unfortunately many love to swap for real news.

But I believe real media will prevail.

(Mohsin Abdullah is a veteran journalist and now a freelancer who writes about this, that and everything else.)

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