Throughout the last decades, Malaysians have enjoyed regular elections and political stability. However, the stability slowly took a turn when the detention of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and the subsequent sentence of 15 years for charges of corruption, abuse of power, and sexual misconduct made the public lose its faith in the integrity of the government’s aims (Heufers, 2002) This the somehow added the growing number of detentions under the Internal Security Act (ISA) and other repressive laws severely threaten political competition, participation, and civil and political liberties.
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The media in Malaysia comprising of the mainstream that is mainly owned and controlled by the government and the alternative media, a form of independent journalism. Many government leaders in the developing world would justify their control over the media in terms of jealously guarding and guiding its members towards the path of national development and to ensure that the media does not fall into the ‘wrong hands’ (Mustafa, 2005) In other words, the government wants to take control of media so they can set the agenda in the minds of society.
This already restricts a sense of openness in the mainstream media. Mustafa (2005) stated in an analysis on the coverage of Malaysia’s 2004 general elections by four mainstream newspapers (The Star, the New Straits Times (NST), Berita Harian and Utusan Melayu), the total number of news items that were positive towards BN among all four major newspapers were roughly 40% and above. The other part of the percentage went straight to new items that were negative towards the opposition. Only a slight number of news (4% and below) were negative new items towards BN. Mustafa (2005) also highlighted sample of headlines used by these newspapers that gave an idea of slant news reporting; “Malaysians prefer Pak Lah’s vision of Islam” (NST, March 15 2004), Perlis merana jika pilih pembangang (Perlis suffers if opposition is voted) (Utusan Melayu, March 16 2004 ) This shows a high level of bias coverage within the highly influential mainstream newspapers during the 2004 general elections.
Another research presented by Ramanathan (2008) consists of a two month content analysis on how the mainstream media presents their reports on the 2008 general elections. Choosing newspapers in four languages (English, Bahasa Malaysia, Tamil and Mandrin) and the new media; internet, online newspapers and SMS as well as monitoring commentaries by selected television channels such as RTM, CNN and Channel News Asia on a selective basis.
According to research, the type of coverage done by five of the mainstream newspapers was sided towards pro-BN stories. 277 stories analysed from Utusan Malaysia has 155 pro-BN stories, 56 pro- opposition and 66 neutral. The Star had a total of 153 stories analysed, 100 were pro-BN and only 22 were pro-opposition. Nanyang Siang Pau had 118 stories, 74 of them pro-BN and 26 pro-opposition. For Tamil newspapers, a qualitative analysis was undertaken that led to conclusions of since Tamil Nesan was being majority owned by Datin Indrani Samy Velu, the newspaper printed many stories featuring Dato Samy Velu and prominent MIC politicians and there were hardly any coverage given to Indian candidates form opposition political parties.
The mainstream media weakens the openness of presenting political news to society. If democracy is all about the people’s right to oppose, to provide critiques with the role of media to influence the people, they are not giving much of a decision or choice to begin with.
Of course there are minimal parts where the government values and would take into consideration the opinions of the people. For example, the topic of teaching Maths and Science in English (PPSMI), society is free to give out comments and opinions on what they think about the topic. People are writing in to newspapers, taking part in massive forums to state their opinion and to fight for what they stand for and the government values the opinion of the people in this case. Why cannot this be the same with political issues? After all, it is the political opinion and stands made by the public that would contribute to the democracy of the country.
Some may say that the alternative works as a perfect place for independent journalism; however it is still closely monitored by the authorities. Blogs and online publications are beginning to worry the Malaysian authorities enough to re-consider the existing policy of non-regulation of the Internet and to call for some controls over the content (Ramanathan, 2008) A clear example was when Raja Petra Kamarudin, editor of alternative news Portal Malaysia Today was charged with publishing a seditious article on 25 May 2008 with the title, ‘Let’s send Altantuya murderers to hell’. Raja was the first blogger to be charged under a sedition act where he claim trail but refused to post bail. Six months after detention under the ISA, Raja was released with no charges being filed against him.
The tight gate-keeping and censorship practised by the government over the mainstream media influences the accountability of democracy. The government does not like reports that are too critical; therefore the responsibility to forming a democracy country is limited due to the restrain in reporting.
During the general election in 2008, Ramanathan (2008) analyzed two-months prior to and after the elections, the mainstream media did coverage’s on upbeat stories about Barisan Nationals chances and dismissed the opposition’s chances. Among them were: a two-page focus on “Issues close to the heart” featuring an in-depth interview with Abdullah, an article titled ‘Guan Eng not a threat in Penang’ dismissed the chances of opposition leader Lim Guan Eng in capturing the state government in Penang and instead Lim won handsomely.
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With slanted reporting like this, the accountability of the government would be doubted by the public hence would give the public the opportunity to opt for something else which they did in the 2008 general election whereby BN suffered one of their worst lost because the public opted for an alternative media. This incident brought the alternative media to a different level when weblogs, text messages and copies of Internet-streamed videos became the most influential information sources for voters ahead that resulted in a surprise blow to the BN) party, which has ruled the country for more than 50 years.
The media holds the representative responsible for taking care of the the people so what happens when these politicians lose in an election? How would they answer to accountability? The innocent death of Teo Beng Hock signifies a crisis of confidence in Malaysian democracy and accountability. Many critics, including those in the current government, argues that restrictions were put in place at a time when they were needed and that preventing public discussion of certain issues is not only counter-productive but it is also futile (Ramanathan, 2008)
With the support towards the alternative media and the growing public sphere, the results from the 2008 election are bound to bring about greater freedom of expression. Though the responsibility of the democracy is in hand, there are some heartening post-election developments; The Home Affairs Ministry approved in April 2008 an application for a permit from the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) to publish its party newspaper. With such actions, this would indeed encourage and strengthen the accountability of the people’s perception towards the country’s democracy.
The mainstream media needs to loosen its strings and start to bring greater media liberalisation to unclog the clouds of uncertainty and doubt in the minds of society. The alternative media is not enough. Society needs to hear the truth from the government. Only then can the country achieve great democracy.
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