A Supremely Supine Press

A friend visiting from Australia once remarked to me after a couple of days stay that we have a tightly controlled press. I commended him for his perceptiveness and asked him how he came to that conclusion. He said that it was obvious from the lack of critical or opposing viewpoints and all the dailies seemed to be rooting for the government from the news, the comments and the editorials down to the letters section.

A free press has been described as a  cornerstone of democracy. Dictators and despots are well aware that a free press is anathema to their survival so the first order of business when they come to power is to curb the press. This may be done gradually if a ruler has evolved slowly to a dictator or promptly if he has seized power but curbed and controlled it must be because no dictatorship can flourish under the glare of a free press. But having restricted the press from publishing criticism and unflattering news, autocrats  soon realize that the it can also be turned around and used as an invaluable tool to propagate their tyranny and a powerful weapon against political enemies.

Malaysia has the dubious distinction of being one of the most unfree press in the democratic world and certainly the worse in South-East Asia after discounting militaristic regimes like Myanmar and Vietnam. Thailand and Philippines have a lively press which do not hesitate to castigate their governments if they see fit. Indonesia after breaking out from the yoke of Suharto has restored press freedom but even during the Suharto days was still more daring than ours. Some may say that Singapore is no better than Malaysia, but I say that ours is worse because while Singapore only controls political news, ours seem to control all types of news in every sphere of our lives including the economy, corruption, the haze, water shortage and disease outbreak. News of anything and everything must be carefully filtered in case they throw an unfavourable light on the leaders and expose their corruption, ineptness or incompetence. The leaders are all faultless (unless they happen to fall from grace in which case they are guilty of everything under the sun) and any negative information must suppressed or distorted to fit this virtual reality.

In Malaysia the press is controlled in two ways – by ownership and the Printing Press Act which requires newspapers to renew their licenses every year. The mainstream newspapers are all Barision Nasional or crony controlled. The New Straits Times, The Malay Mail and Berita Harian are controlled by UMNO through MRCB, The Star is owned by MCA and The Sun is owned by crony Vincent Tan. RTM1 and RTM2 are government owned and Astro and TV3 are owned by another crony Ananda Krishnan. Licensing threats are used against the vernacular newspapers to bring them in line. Small wonder that there is no journalistic ethics left in Malaysia. The vernacular newspapers are slightly more vocal than the supine mainstream press but the overall effect is to create a thick cocoon of feel good news where the political leaders can do no wrong,  evil foreigners are out to re-colonize us and Mahathir is revered like a demi-god who can neither say or do any wrong. In this unreal utopia of suppressed, censored, filtered and distorted news, the powerful and the well-connected can get away with gross corruption and abuses without fear of public embarrassment or having to answer for it.

We have journalists and editors who throw journalist morals to the winds and not only censor themselves so well, but also distort the truth so thoroughly that liars seem the best description for them. There is more than one way to lie and lying by omission is just as grievous as lying by spewing untruths. During the economic crisis, I was struck when comparing local and foreign press reports of statements by economic heads of institutions like IMF and World Bank. It was all too obvious that the local press had tried to paint a better picture of Malaysia by printing the praise and favorable portions but omitted negative parts of the statements which criticize or qualify the positive or contain dire warnings or hard truths. In some cases the omissions were material enough to turn the statement completely around from a critical to a condoning one with a bold headline to that effect. Did the press lie? Technically they did not print untruths, but they lied as surely they had by highly selectively reporting.

News blackout of non-conforming views and what does not fit is commonly practised to influence public opinion. In 1998 Time magazine named Mahathir Asian newmaker of the year and this was splashed in triumphant headlines over all the local press. At the same time, Newsweek’s selection of Anwar Ibrahim as Asian of the Year was totally ignored by the same press. This manner of biased journalism is like reporting only one elephant when there are actually two because reporting the reality would destroy whatever virtual view they try to project. Large crowds attending opposition rallies are never published while stage-managed crowds greeting Mahathir are given prominence to play up his popularity. We have also had a total blackout of Mahathir’s grand palace in Putrajaya – no pictures have ever been seen in print or on TV - no doubt to protect the public from knowing about his megalomania and self-aggrandizement which would not fit in too well with his public image. News blackout are routinely imposed on critical Bar Council resolutions, NGO statements, opposition party press releases, affidavits of torture by police (remember Munawar) and anything unflattering to the establishment. The blackout also extends to anything which puts the opposition in a good light such as the recent Alternative Front’s manifesto of social justice for all races.

A responsible press should comment on events and news and highlight information material to such events to allow the public to form a reasonable opinion. If a big corporate takeover is being reported the public should also be informed as to who the people are behind the companies, interested parties and the effect on minority shareholders besides the bare facts. But such information is usually not forthcoming if political personalities are involved. Thus we are not told that Finance Minster Daim Zainuddinh who was pushing through the bank merger exercise controls tiny Multi-Purpose Bank which was slated to takeover banks many times bigger than itself including RHB Bank which alone is 8 times bigger. When businessman Ali Akhbar made his blatantly unfair bid for CLOB shares we cannot know from press reports that he was a good friend of Daim and neither did the press questioned his meager RM1 million paid up capital or how he managed to obtain all Malaysian regulatory approvals to boot when improved proposals by parties unconnected to the finance minister have been unable to so. The press also failed to comment on Anwar’s tennis partner Dato Nalla being charged under mandatory death penalty for forgetting to renew his license for 125 lousy bullets in so blatant an injustice.

Then there are the biased and prejudiced opinion pieces written by editors and journalists who present a grossly one-sided view. Two notable examples are V.K. Chin of The Star and Kadir Jasin of New Straits Times. Chin is well known for slavishly cheerleading government policies without so much as a negative comment or a discussion of the pros and cons be it higher tolls or hospital privatization. Reading his column one may forgiven for thinking of him as a spineless opportunist testing which way the wind blows for the establishment so that he may be in agreement with it. Kadir Jasin the billionare Group Managing Director of the NST Press prefers to influence public thinking with sledgehammer blows of biased opinionated pro-establishment nonsense to which he has a vested interest to maintain the status quo. Other journalists have poured scorn, lies, half-truths, distortions and biased comments on matters such as the opposition, the foreign press, internet reformasi sites, NGOs and the IMF with their totally one-sided articles which are devoid of any good points for the subject of abuse as if there is only one side to a coin.

Besides the half-truths, distortions and obfuscation there are the occasional downright lies. Utusan Malaysia lied in 1998 when it claimed that a group of women demonstrating for fallen DPM Anwar Ibrahim were prostitutes. More recently, Utusan and Berita Harian descended together into gutter journalism when they printed front page headlines screaming that Anwar was not poisoned before the hospital had released any report (perhaps they can argue in defence that the result was inevitable and they were just reporting it early). During the election campaign, there were many lies reported against the opposition like members resigning when such persons had never been members and twisting of opposition leaders’ speeches to the extent that their meaning was transformed into grotesque shadows of the original. With the advent of digital editing technology there is yet another way to lie through doctoring photographs. Sin Chew Jit Poh took a picture of BN leaders after their 1995 election win and superimposed Abdullah Badawi’s head on Anwar’s body. Although the paper later apologized online to offended netizens, the apology did not appear in the print version. Another is a clearly doctored picture of a crowd meeting Mahathir  published by Berita Minggu which is actually 2 pictures merged into one to give the impression of a bigger crowd. Fraudulent journalism has come of age.

The Malaysian press has never been really free to criticize the government but the last few years has seen it descend far below being merely being muzzled. It is one thing to be unable to criticize, but another to be voluntarily so pro-establishment and anti-opposition without regard for fair and balanced reporting. But our press has sunk even below that and allowed itself to be used as a weapon to slander and vilify political enemies of those in power. With the Anwar Ibrahim saga the press has sunk to the deepest pits of journalism by leading a vile campaign to character assassinate him with no right of reply from the injured party. Unsubstantiated allegations against the ex-DPM were published in blazing headlines as if they were gospel truth with no journalistic comments whatsoever to alleviate their impact. Rebuttals and replies were either ignored or buried in inside pages and given short strife. Instead of being a watchdog of democracy and a fearless medium to publicize any abuses and wrong-doings, it has itself become a perpetrator of wrongs and abuses far beyond what is necessary to keep its printing licenses. As a willing tool of tyranny, truth does not matter anymore, lies, falsehood, deceit and injustice have replaced journalistic decency and any pretense of fair and balanced reporting. The behaviour of the press over the Anwar saga has opened up a Pandora’s box that will not close back when it is over.

What are some of the abuses covered up by the press? Chief Justice Eusoff Chin’s holiday in New Zealand with attorney V. Lingam who happened to be pleading a case in his court must be the height of judicial impropriety and would have forced any Chief Justice in any decent democracy to resign, but pictures of the holiday have been on the internet for more than a year and totally ignored by the mainstream press. Meanwhile the tainted Eusoff Chin continue to hold office and was even given more awards. Documentary proof of Megat Junid’s paid gambling trip to an Australian casino have also been circulated on the internet but again the press shows no interest. Datuk Soh Chee Wen’s damning police report against Ling Liong Sik should have been fodder for interesting news in anywhere else except Malaysia. There have been substantiated disclosure of corruption by judge Ghani Patail, AG Mokhtar Abdullah and Ministers Rafidah Aziz and Daim Zainuddin but instead of pursuing those, the press is more interested in highlighting and publicizing unsubstantiated allegations against Anwar by Dutuk Murad without a shred of evidence. Stony silence over the lack of ACA progress in investigating the Perwaja Steel fraud and Ling’s billionaire son has allowed such outrageous scandals to fester unsolved and the big-time crooks to remain uncharged. If Munawar’s detailed account of his horrifying torture in a sworn affidavit had been published, any sodomy case against Anwar would have self-destructed and the resulting public outcry would necessitate resignations of the culprits.

Another aspect of the Malaysian press that has caused much harm to the nation is to feed Dr. Mahathir’s ego and hasten his descent into megalomania. Everything that the Prime Minister says no matter how ridiculous, how trite and how impractical must be played up, expanded and developed on. When he once proposed the concept of zero inflation years ago this impractical economic view which must mean a stagnating economy was hailed as an innovative workable concept and so-called experts found and interviewed to enthusiastically expound on it. All his grandiose mega projects must be applauded and praised no matter how economically senseless even though the resources could be better employed to raise living standards instead of pouring into huge white elephants to feed his megalomania. Did the press cry out against his extravagant Putrajaya residence costing at least RM200 million and the purchase of an executive jet costing another RM200 million at a time when people were suffering under a wrenching economic recession? No, and instead of reporting the Prime Minister’s waning popularity with the grassroots, the press is at the forefront of cheering the naked emperor’s invisible clothes. As for Mahathir’s strident attacks on foreigners and dire warnings on foreign re-colonization, this ridiculous foreign bogeyman ploy must be played up seriously as if the people are stupid. It must be a supreme irony that in the same newspaper issue, one can read of the fearful foreign danger together with frantic government initiatives to woo foreign investments.

Can the Malaysian press sink lower than what has been described above? Unfortunately the answer is yes and the 1999 election campaign has again lowered the ante on what it can descend into. During the campaign blitz, Malaysians were swamped with more than 1000 full page advertisements by the ruling party, many of them extremely odious and unbecoming of any civilized society. Fear of racial riots, fear of religion, fear of cultural domination and fear of one race against another were graphically depicted in those pages. Instead of promoting racial integration and harmony in a multi-racial society, the press has seen it fit to assist the Barisan National in polarizing the races and playing off one race against another in their desperation to win the elections. Even wife was turned against husband in a fraudulent attempt to portray Wan Azizah as distrusting her husband. It seemed that nothing was too dishonourable to be used as the press wallowed in a cesspool of lies and deceit creating fear and hatred. The fact that they were advertisements does not absolve them of the responsibility for they have become willing accomplices by accepting them or otherwise have traded their souls for their printing licenses. In stark contrast, The Alternative Front’s advertisements were largely rejected although late in the campaign a few were accepted for the sake of tokenism after heavy editing.

Taking the cue from Mahathir, the foreign press has been attacked by our local press as full of lies and distortions. This is like liars trying to cover themselves by accusing the other party of lying first. It seems that any view which does not agree with Mahathir’s is an attempt to mislead, any bitter truth about us which cannot be glossed over is a lie and reporting any disreputable event which actually happened is an attack on the country. We are warned incessantly that the whole foreign press is ganging up on Malaysia and doing whatever they can to pull the country down. The truth is that foreign news network, newspapers, magazines and journals are all independent and have no relation to one another. They are all owned by different owners scattered all over the world whose sole interest is to report the news as they see fit and operate their agencies as going business concerns, not to punish countries. Certainly it would be farfetched to imagine that they would want to spend vast amounts of time, effort and money to conspire among themselves to run down a small country like ours with no discernable benefit to them. Yet this is what Mahathir and his political goons want us to believe, terrified as they are of real news which expose their weakness and corruption. Of course Malaysians are generally perceived as mental lightweights by our astute leaders and are unable to distinguish truth from falsehood so must be protected from foreign sources of news and spoon fed the harmless Malaysian stuff, mentally stunting though it may be. At the same time, the local press is quick to reprint any praise or favourable comments reported in the foreign press, even from those sources they routinely attack as liars.

What is the effect of all this on the public perception of the press? With all the biased reporting, the lies, the distortions and the bullshit, the public have generally come to accept that the press is about as independent as a caged hamster and view it as a mouthpiece of the establishment which will print what they are required to. This is why ours is a nation of rumour mills where whispered gossips are given more credence to what is reported in the press. During the Chow Kit incident last year where illegal Indonesians were said to be rioting the news spread like wildfire and continued to spread fear even when the mainstream press reported it to be false. During the Anwar Ibrahim persecution by the local press, people were so disgusted that readership of all the mainstream newspapers fell while sales of the opposition newspaper Harakah rose to rival the circulation of some of the major papers. The election blitz with the virulent anti-opposition reporting has left a bitter taste behind reinforcing the public perception of a deeply compromised mass media. The ramification of all this is that the government may monopolize the local media but increasing people will disregard the news and turn to alternative sources of news.

This is why the rise of the internet is of supreme importance to Malaysian democracy. This is as yet an uncontrolled medium and filled with sources of news from foreign news agencies and online magazines. Sites such as freeMalaysia, Malaysiakini and Seachange Malaysia provide news, comments and opinion which are free of censorship and fear. This is highly undesirable to the government who view the potential loss of their monopoly on information as disastrous to their bid to retain their grip on power. They are quick to brand as lies any information which contradicts their views or expose the corruption in the system especially if such information has been gathered via the internet. Not everything posted on the internet is true but intelligent users can decide for themselves what is truth and what is not and corroborate with alternative sources if necessary. Only those who operate under lies, falsehood and deception fear the spread of free information. Barisan Nasional have always hinged their re-election on their absolute control of information by using the supine mass media to propagate their views while suppressing the opposition views. The result is that elections are hardly free or fair and victory is gained through votes of fear and misinformation. It is telling that on-line polls invariably show the BN losing badly, even at websites run by BN component parties. Well-informed people have sound reasons to turn to the opposition sickened as they are by the corruption, abuses, social injustice and hypocrisy of the BN. As the internet spreads widely through the population and more young computer literate voters join the electoral roll every year, the next election will be extremely challenging to the incumbent party.

B. Gan

Companion Article: Dirty Election Trick
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