MEDIA-MALAYSIA: Call to boycott newspapers for biased reporting

By Anil Netto

PENANG, Jan 31 (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 mainstream print media are largely controlled by ruling coalition parties or business interests close to them. Though already pro-establishment in their reporting, they usually turn into full-blown propaganda tools of the ruling coalition in the days leading up to a general election, say critics.

The call for a ”Paper-less Tuesday” – calling on the public to abstain from newspapers on Tuesdays, for a start – was launched on Monday by a working committee under the ‘People’s Parliament’ initiative.

The ‘People’s Parliament’ provides an on-line avenue for cyber-activism, providing 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 in the mainstream media ”did not always tally with facts”. Among them are Haris Ibrahim, a lawyer-cum-blogger; Helen Ang, an online columnist; and Bernard Khoo (‘Zorro’), a former teacher-turned-blogger.

They have also launched an online petition to muster public support for the campaign and are now selling yellow T-shirts bearing the message, “Boycott the Newspapers – No buy, No Lies”.

Some Malaysian 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 committee member Ang is unfazed. ”We shouldn’t underestimate the impact of a campaign like this.”

She noted that the last boycott was carried out nearly ten 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.” Of late, mobile phone text messages have also played a key role in mobilising the public to attend protest gatherings or boycott events, she added.

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 amongst 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.

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,” observed 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 said.

He pointed 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 warned.

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 coverage of the three main English-language newspapers in the run-up to the polls.

He found that the three main English-language papers in the peninsula showed 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 The Star,” he concluded in a commentary published in the social reform journal, Aliran Monthly. ”This was followed by the New Straits Times, and then the Sun.”

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, The Star, for the same area.

But media observers are now worried that the Sun 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 Sun, to 88 percent.

Sources said the move to consolidate the ownership of The Sun was done due to political considerations, reported The 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 screw on the media industry,” observed 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,” said working committee member Haris. ”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.”

First published in Inter Press Service on 31 January 2008

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