As I see it, the core issue in the MSM debate is whether Malaysians considers MSM to be so valueless, either for not carrying material and topical information or for presenting such information in a manner skewed to a particular end (spin-doctoring). The People’s Parliament appears to think so, inviting Malaysians to reject the MSM and to turn to alternative sources exclusively, as many of us already do.
An adjunct issue is whether in light of MSM being government linked, Malaysians should condone this alleged manipulation, seeing as how responsibility for the same, if any, must rest with the government. The People’s Parliament thinks that we should not and invites us to register our displeasure by a rejection of the policies underlying the corralling of the media by the governments.
It may have a point.
There are two interlocking facets that require consideration, to do so requiring our assuming that MSM is either valueless or skewed or both. Firstly, bearing in mind that media houses are privately, as opposed to state, owned, we ought consider to what extent, if at all, the ideology of their owners be permitted to manifest.
A discerning reader will readily see that even where there are no media controls (in the way we understand such controls), as is the case in the United States, some newspapers or journals are conservative, more often than not taking a pro-status quo line. Others lean the opposite direction whereas yet others stay somewhere in the middle.
In the absence of media controls, the “position” taken by a particular newspaper or journal could be viewed as being reflective of the policy of the particular media house. Media being influential, I think it would be safe to say that in presenting a position on a particular issue, a manifestation of the governing policy in content would reflect the “agenda”, political or otherwise, of the owners.
Absent such controls, there is nothing necessarily wrong with this subject to journalistic responsibility being fulfilled. Media is obliged to report matters truthfully and fairly, no matter the perspective adopted in the reporting. This responsibility arises not only by reason of laws requiring responsible, accurate and truthful reporting so as to prevent injury to reputation and misinformation but also, I suggest, by reason of the special relationship that media enjoys with the reading public.
Put another way, the truth cannot be jettisoned in favour of an agenda. The boycott MSM campaign suggests that the MSM has jettisoned truth in favour of an agenda and the argument advanced in support is persuasive.
Significantly, in their claim against Rocky and Jeff Ooi, the NST and key management figures of the newspaper have claimed that by suggesting that the newspapers was involved in spin-doctoring, the two bloggers had defamed them. Defamation proceedings being what they are, it is highly likely that the issue of whether the NST does in fact spin doctor will become a central issue in the ongoing proceedings.
Whatever the case, in considering the MSM campaign, we will have to decide whether MSM does report fairly and accurately, no matter the slant.
The second aspect relates to the question of media control. In conceding the right of owners of media houses to manifest their particular policy positions and drive their particular agendas, as I have above, I limit myself to scenarios where media is not regulated in the way public media in Malaysia is. The Malaysian regulatory process commences with the requirement of hard-won permits or licences, the granting of which is wholly subjective to the Minister concerned. As things stand, the number of non-government linked media houses, and consequently the available news sources, is limited. This is true also of television, whether terrestrial, cable or satellite. The regulatory process continues throughout the lifespan of the media enterprise concerned, with the threat of revocation or suspension constantly hanging over it. The regulatory process is so subjectively stringent, apparently skewed to a political end, it has come to be a commonly accepted truth that the media is not free in Malaysia.
The practical reality is that there being minimal space for alternate viewpoints or perspectives, there is only one agenda being promoted; that of the owners of MSM, in this case the government through its links to MSM. While in an unrestricted environment there would be nothing objectionable in this, the Malaysian scenario makes it so. Citizens are not given meaningful access to fair and balanced reporting nor a broader range of views. They are as a result denied the basis upon which they can make informed decisions on particular issues. Such alternatives as there are do not redress this due to their limited reach, either by design or circumstance. Permits for the publication of newspapers published by opposition political parties carry conditions heavily restricting circulation. The Sun is distributed only in the Klang Valley. Internet penetration, though increasing, has still not allowed for significant access to heartland areas and limits access to online media such as Malaysiakini.com.
In these circumstances, even if this was no intended by the government, MSM has come to more closely resemble propaganda. This process has been propelled by legitimate concerns on the part of the managements of newspapers that they will be shut down if they do not cooperate, to the extent that a desire to publish independently does exist. The thunderous silence that followed the shutting down of the printing presses at The Star in 1987 still resonates for many a senior newspaper person, enough for editors to be on guard for the unwanted consequences of the enthusiastic journalism of many a quality journalist in MSM.
Journalism paid the price in 1987. It continues to do so, just as the citizenry does. The continued denial of the legitimacy of critical analysis and opinion by the government has helped shaped the straight-jacketed, uninspired, un-innovative mindset that has driven investors in search of human resources elsewhere and Malaysia into an uncertain future. The government has quite correctly emphasized the need to improve the quality of our human capital. The media plays a vital role in this process, a fact the government will have to recognize if it is serious about becoming globally competitive in the not too distant future. How do we aim for the stars when we lack the imagination to reach for them in the first place?
There is a further dimension to the question of regulation. By virtue of it being linked to media houses, the government is in no position to oversee regulatory functions. There is a clear conflict of interest, both economic - the requirement for permits being utilized in aid of creating monopolies - and political. This is both morally and legally unacceptable.
When viewed from this perspective, the People’s Parliament has a point. The boycott MSM campaign is aimed at nothing more than a fair and free press. The government appears to have recognised the need for such a press in the rhetoric surrounding its tentative steps towards the establishment of a press council. While it is reasonable to argue that the need for developments can only be actuated progressively, it is nonetheless vital for the government to recognize that media regulation impedes the development of the government’s vision of Malaysia as much as it hampers the progress of the nation.
The government needs to cement its support for the ideal by seriously considering concerns expressed about the fundamentals of the proposed Press Council bill in particular the call for providing for full de-regulation and a disassociation of the government from the press.
In the meanwhile, the government must reconsider the position it has taken, and continues to take, in the granting of permits. There is a sufficiently comprehensive legal framework to take offenders to task in existence, one that render the barriers unnecessary.