In May, on the occasion of national journalists’ day, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim told Malaysia’s largest gathering of journalists that the media should not be fearful of criticising the government.
He encouraged the media to get rid of the old culture of writing, which included “hero-worshipping” the ruling government. Many among the public doubt the Madani government’s sincerity. The fact remains that the media is still very tightly controlled.
For example, Anwar’s statement contradicts recent action taken by the communications and digital ministry about two weeks before the six state elections this past August. Local internet service providers were said to have blocked access to pro-opposition news outlets MalaysiaNow, UtusanTV, Malaysia Today, TV Pertiwi, and the blog of former politician Wee Choo Keong.
That action notwithstanding, the unity government should consider having regular press briefings, whether at the Prime Minister’s Office or ministry levels. At these sessions, reporters from different news organisations will be able to ask about a wide range of issues (and not just the news of the day).
A semblance of transparency
Press briefings are an important window into the policies and priorities of the government.
At the very least, the government owes a semblance of transparency to the people. To transform the nexus between governance, the media, and the public, weekly briefing sessions can be efficient, and productive.
This is important given the growing misinformation, disinformation and mal-information multiplying out there.
Furthermore, it keeps the public abreast of the work done by all the ministries. It forces the ministers and MPs to work hard and be accountable. Hopefully too, regular meet-the-press sessions may reduce the number of our “gaji buta” MPs and ministers, who seem to be a regular phenomenon in Malaysian governance.
A training ground
These media sessions can act as a training ground for young reporters, who I hope, will one day develop into intelligent and discerning investigative reporters. Of course, in Malaysia, this will be a bewildering task, but we must at least aspire to that goal.
Regular press briefings enable reporters to build up their confidence, to develop the art of asking critical questions, to shed their naivete, to think on their feet, and to remain socially relevant.
Whether questions asked at these sessions are answered or dismissed is another matter. A recent Merdeka Center survey showed that only 15% of the media in Malaysia plays “a critical role” while 45% of respondents have a negative perception of the media. Almost half of these indicated that they were unhappy with the media. The goal is to reverse this trend.
One of the main stumbling blocks facing our media is the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984. Despite this, conducting regular press briefings will help to mature the media sector in this country.
The right to know
Besides, it is our right as voters to be regularly informed of the daily or weekly tasks carried out by the ministries. Currently, months can go by without the public hearing a peep from some of our ministers, or about the work they are supposedly doing.
There must be regular feedback about whether ministers and MPs are following-up on debates and decisions made in Parliament. Are they acting on what they claim they will do for the community, in some speech they might have recently given, at an official function?
It is their duty to show the public that they are taking their tasks seriously. Talk is cheap, so they should walk the talk.
Also, too often some ministers might suddenly announce a policy change, through a hurried media statement, or their Facebook or X account. Previous discussions leading up to the new policy are non-existent, so the public is left in the dark about events leading up to the decision.
This results in an irritated public, “taken aback” with the lack of consideration and planning by these politicians.
Knowing why, not just how
In the Malaysian context, many might say it is the prerogative of the government to announce such changes, no matter how random they seem. However, good governance means the public should be informed of the sequence leading up to decisions about top civil servants and policy decisions.
The current practice of surprising the public with sudden policy announcements, is not appreciated. A lot of information is gathered “through the grapevine”, and through “someone said” gossip channels.
Alternatively, regular meet-the-press sessions would enhance more trust and respect for the government. For the long-term maturity of our political culture, this is an important step.
Political culture determines who is given authority and power in society and government, and who is allowed to participate in decision-making. It reflects other elements which relate to the interactions of the people with their leaders.
Also, the Malaysian mass media has at least three important roles to play. They inform, educate and influence public opinion. There are of course many criticisms of our media, mainly how biased and manipulated they are, by the government of the day.
A suspicious public
Malaysians tend to be suspicious of the media, and wary of which outlet can be truly trusted. It is a fact that some are owned by political parties, while others are alleged to be “agents of foreign entities”. There are also those that are considered “click-bait trash”, which category includes portals such as Says.com, World of Buzz, and The Coverage.
The traditional media comprising its print and broadcast components are being increasingly challenged by mercenary bloggers, and messaging services such as Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Telegram and SMS.
These media challenges have critically impacted how we perceive and interact with our leaders, and vice versa.
Many leaders of course have a disdain for the media, so they would not desire regular press briefings. Be that as it may, Malaysians are ill-served when our government refuses to answer questions from the media, or provide information about its workings.
Many countries, including India’s ministry of external affairs, and the US White House, hold regular press briefings. Most are weekly, some are daily. We should emulate this as an additional way for the government to be accountable, and to communicate with the Malaysian public.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.