Malaysiakini, you’re no longer ‘alternative media’

by Sharifuddin A Latiff

The People’s Parliament is running a ‘Boycott the Newspapers!’ campaign, which we floated last November, kicked off December in cyberspace and brought to the larger public January this year.

This campaign is managed by a committee called Hartal MSM; ‘hartal’ carries a historical sense of ‘concerted boycott action’ and MSM is of course the acronym for mainstream media.

Nonetheless, the ‘political tsunami‘ not only upended our traditional understanding of government and opposition in Malaysia, it also lent a disconcerting turnaround to what is MSM and what’s long been held here as alternative media. This letter looks at the necessity of redefining these concepts in the light of March 8.

We Malaysians have since had to re-orientate ourselves to the fact DAP and PKR are no longer opposition but state governments, and BN vice-versa. Similarly, how do we begin to re-look Malaysiakini, or for that matter The Star? Is the latter now an opposition-owned entity barking at the moon, eye-in-the-sky and rocket in Kedah, Selangor and Penang?

Cyberspace since the reformasi days has been considered opposition turf and one of the country’s online media pioneers, Malaysiakini, similarly cast as pro-opposition, though perhaps in fairness, one should put it another way by saying this e-paper has overall been critical of the establishment of the day.

As a sign of how things and times have changed, ousted Selangor Menteri Besar, Umno’s Dr Mohd Khir Toyo recently became a blogger, while former Gerakan President Dr Lim Keng Yaik has indicated a same desire. Umno cybertroopers (they’ve got a website even) have of course been on active patrol since a lot earlier and the MCA affected its presence too in cyberspace.

It is in this relation, or might we call it relativity, that Hartal MSM is bringing up the matter of a letter to the editor published here March 19 headlined GE2008 – Shahrizat was wronged! and written by someone using the pseudonym ‘Justice’.

We find it somewhat dishonest, if not suspicious, of the author to have published that same letter on March 16 in MalaysiaVotes under the headline ‘Shahrizat didn’t deserve to lose’ but under a different pseudonym ‘Child Care Worker’.

Nobody bothered to leave a comment in MalaysiaVotes to ‘Child Care Worker’ but Malaysiakini elicited some readers’ response to ‘Justice’ and we would like to augment these with our own observations, vis-B-vis how the narrative is framed and seen through the ‘mainstream’ versus ‘alternative’ lens.

The ‘two-names-same-letter’ argues that Shahrizat ‘did not deserve to lose’ because she performed comparatively better than other cabinet ministers. Our contention is that BN ministers are paid to do their jobs and using a ‘comparative’ yardstick is a misplaced gauge with which to measure. Put DAP’s Teresa Kok in Shahrizat’s cabinet post and see if she couldn’t have done the job much, much better. So why make lame excuses to garner sympathy for the defeated Wanita Umno deputy chief?

Letter writer Omar Shariff replying here said, Shahrizat was wronged? Oh, please! He refers to ‘Justice’ as ‘blatant Umno-cybertrooper material’, opining ‘Umno has understood the relevance of blogs and alternative media by now, and they are clever enough to, if need be, pay astro-turfers from the money of the rakyat to foster their agenda’. The opinion that it was a planted letter is his conjecture.

Omar’s observation however that ‘Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s words that the losers won’t be reappointed’ now rings hollow with Shahrizat’s backdoor entry returning her to the corridors of power does succeed in making a valid point.

It is in connection with this – the idea of what makes for ‘mainstream vs alternative’ coverage – that Hartal MSM is bringing up an interview carried here on Feb 23 headlined Enter MalaysiaVotes.com, since this New Media entrant was a vehicle for the pro-Shahrizat ‘photostat’ letter.

A piece of whistleblowing was done by the MalaysiaVotes founders who had left The Sun just prior to the general election: ‘Despite theSun being a good paper, we often had to censor or play down stories in order not to jeopardise our printing permit’. The People’s Parliament posted our engagement with The Sun over its takeover by Berjaya as well as questioned the paper’s editorial freedom in Do Malaysian newspapers not publish clarification?

The Malaysiakini interview allowed ‘MalaysiaVotes’ to put across a false picture that they were venturing online for the reason of covering news on the elections that would not gain either the attention of or fair coverage from the traditional media in Malaysia.

We would like to highlight that the sympathetic piece posted as a feature in MalaysiaVotes – which refused to reveal who their financial backers are – on Shahrizat’s election loss is not something ‘untraditional’ given the ownership and control of MSM.

Now if ‘MalaysiaVotes’ were to really live up to its avowed aims, it would have featured Nurul Izzah Anwar’s win in Lembah Pantai (Shahrizat’s constituency). This it did not, post-March 8 and to have given airing to the senior incumbent politician, albeit indirectly, whereas ignoring the victorious junior challenger, hardly displays the fresh and vaunted ‘balance’ they profess for their reporting and which they claim MSM lack.

This similar imbalance is reflected in MalaysiaVotes’ lavish splash on Umno’s Khairy Jamaluddin in Rembau compared to their passing coverage of his lesser known PKR challenger Chegubard – an analysis of which can be read in Aliran.

Does ‘alternative’ fare have sole proprietary rights to Malaysian cyberspace land deeds nowadays? Clearly ‘no’. Have Anwar Ibrahim and Lim Guan Eng been divested of their persona non grata status in MSM? Apparently so.

In conclusion, we would like to say to media observers, the reading public and ‘alternative media’ itself that it is timely to re-orientate. Just as the Pakatan Rakyat has now become a ‘mainstream’ political player, so too has the equation changed for what was previously dubbed MSM.

Barisan Alternatif which once characterised the coalition of PAS-DAP-PKR is outdated. So in the same vein Malaysiakini, you’re no longer ‘alternative media’; you’ve become a seeded player in the Centre Court. We’re living in a different world now and our understanding of this changed environment in the terms we choose to describe it must be adjusted accordingly.

The writer represents the People’s Parliament.

First published in Malaysiakini on April 11, 2008

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