Cautious steps to overhaul the media

It is exactly one year since GE14. The post-Barisan Nasional era promises unprecedented reduction of corruption and a revamp of the education system.

Most crucial is the promise to reform the decision-making process.

Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad recently said that even though his government is being attacked for not yet fulfilling their election manifesto, solid changes are underway.

I agree. The recent appointments of the Inspector General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador and Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat attest to this fact.

However, a year after Pakatan Harapan’s victory, we have yet to resolve the problem of race and religious-based politics.

Opposition narratives to discredit PH are still based on the three Rs — race, religion and royalty. ICERD and the Rome Statute debacles left Malaysians thwarted again.
The opposition narratives focused on protecting Malay-Muslim rights, defending Islam and safeguarding the sovereignty of the rulers. A majority of Malays did not see ICERD and the Rome Statute as vehicles for inclusive human rights. Instead, they saw it as divisive western imperialism and islamophobia.

A rational mind would deduce that 60 years of such a culture cannot be banished in just 365 days. However, civil society has to continue to raise awareness of these issues and to bring expert knowledge to shape strategy and policy.

The print and broadcast media has to be cleverly utilised in this process.

Last month, the “4 musketeers” who wrote the anti-Rome Statute essay, derailed the government’s intent to accede to the treaty. As academics they have the right to their opinions provided their views are empirically defended. There is no question that they should be stripped of their jobs or put in cold storage based solely on them presenting their research to the Council of Rulers.

Rather, they were given the chance to defend the contents of it, in public forums, online discussions, and through the print and broadcast media. Shamefully, they have remained silent.

Throughout the Rome Statute discourse, the perception is that these “innocent” academics have been victimised. Sympathisers are downcast because they believe the academics had gone out on a limb to defend the three Rs.

Media and perception

Perception is everything as it determines action and reaction. The print and broadcast media contribute to these perceptions. As a result, another protest march was held on May 4 by several disgruntled Malay Muslim NGOs.

Over the last 60 years, Malaysian civil society has accused state-owned media of being biased.

For instance, media outlets such as The Star and Utusan Malaysia are owned by political parties. The previous government had monopolised television and radio media through Umno’s Media Prima group. It is also the parent company of four television channels and three radio channels (Hot FM, Fly FM and One FM).

State-owned Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM) operates 36 radio and four television stations nationwide.

RTM channels are replete with singing shows, cooking programmes, gender-biased dramas (where women are often characterised as jilted, sobbing, screaming or hysterical partners), contests, slapstick comedies and religious talk shows. The latter tend to focus on Islamic dogma and ritualistic instruction.

Global information about Malaysian media is equally revealing. In factsanddetails.com, under the heading “Media and Television in Malaysia”, the infobyte begins with “most Malaysian newspapers and electronic media outlets are controlled by the government or political parties in the ruling coalition”. This particular site was last updated in 2015.

Wikipedia’s introduction on the same topic begins with “many media outlets are either owned directly by the government (e.g. Bernama) or owned by component parties”. This portal is up to date.

The good news is that a lively alternative media scene has emerged over the last 20 years. These are characterised predominantly by portals such as Free Malaysia Today (FMT), Malaysiakini and The Malaysian Insight.

In 2013, we recall Malaysiakini’s “Buy a Brick” campaign. It was launched to solicit funding for the construction of the company’s own building. Among the politicians who supported the campaign were individuals from DAP, PKR, Umno and PAS. Since many of these politicians are now “the government”, the public needs to monitor how balanced the alternative media scene remains.

The religious narrative

Last week, panelists at a forum expressed disappointment with the government’s lack of presence on RTM and Bernama to provide alternative explanations on the current racial and religious narratives.

In principal, I totally agree. PH to date has been too reserved in engaging the public on contentious issues. Except for the short tweets, and Facebook and Instagram posts, most ministers have not been aggressively disseminating their reform agenda.

Neither have they been analytical on what these reforms mean to the larger Malay population and how it could benefit them.

The question of female circumcision is a case in point. The lopsided mainstream narrative has been controlled by religious stalwarts from state religious agencies and exclusive Muslim NGOs.

Instead, it should be led by reform-minded government officials. The minister in charge of Islamic affairs, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, should publicise his ministry’s interaction with equally progressive civil society groups that have Malay concerns at heart. They should be armed with empirical facts and anthropological analyses.

PH should persist in the narrative that pre-Islamic, cultural practices have infiltrated current Malaysian (Malay) Islam. They must clarify that this goes against true Islamic teachings.

PH should be steadfast in addressing the “super liberal” versus Islamic narrative. The current misconception is that anything progressive is automatically deemed “super liberal”, which translates as anti-Malay/Islam.

PH politicians have merely denied that they are “super liberal”; they have not taken pains to explain that there is no incongruity between being liberal and Muslim. Disappointingly, RTM persists in it’s mind-numbing programmes.

A note of caution though. As we encourage government to find a new way of expressing themselves, they too have the power to restrict civil society space.

Suppression of information and labelling it as “foreign” or a “threat to national unity” can easily become the mantra for future suppression of people-participation. After all, this was the norm in the BN era.
The call for PH to strategise against opposition hate speech, misinformation and extremism is warranted. However, their use of state-owned media outlets has to be paralleled by informed civil society watchdogs. They have to be equally vigilant in preventing the same propagandistic “take-over” mentality that all governments are capable of.

Civil society should push for more PH involvement in mainstream government-owned media, and also insist on equal coverage of opposition views.

We do not want RTM to become synonymous with PH. We do not want to annoy fence-sitters. Rather, the state-owned media would be more attractive to the Malay grassroots if it is seen as non-partisan and open to frank discussions.

After all, PH’s popularity among this segment of the population has waned dismally. The way to win them over is for the media to avoid the honourific of “government mouthpiece”.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.