EARLIER this month, Deputy Finance Minister Datuk Ahmad Maslan instructed government-linked companies (GLCs) to increase their ad spend in Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian. Although the move is likely unprecedented in Malaysian history, we should not be surprised by the directive.
In mid-September, Ahmad Maslan’s boss, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, urged not just GLCs but also government agencies and bumiputera-owned companies to buy more ads in the Malay daily. That wasn’t the only thing Najib, who is also Umno president, did — he announced that Jalan Enam, where he had just opened Utusan’s new headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, would be renamed Jalan Utusan.
It’s irrefutable from these reports that the ethno-nationalistic Malay daily enjoys huge support from Umno despite the legitimate criticisms against the paper’s lack of journalistic ethics and professionalism. And while Umno would do anything to ensure the survivability of its media mouthpiece, there is a price to pay for bailing out Utusan.
Keeping the media dishonest
It is publicly known that Utusan Malaysia’s readership, just like the readership of other traditional print titles, has been sliding over the years. At one point, Utusan’s daily circulation was 350,000 copies. In the first half of last year, however, figures by the Audit Bureau of Circulations showed that the ultra-nationalistic Malay paper averaged only 181,000 copies daily.
Utusan has also been suffering financial losses in the millions and is currently trying to raise approximately RM40 million through a rights issue to its shareholders. The rights issue will result in Umno increasing its stake in Utusan Melayu (M) Bhd, which owns the paper.
Much of Utusan’s decline has been attributed to the not-unfounded perception that the paper, like many other traditional media, has become a mere channel for government propaganda. If that was not bad enough, Utusan is notorious for publishing false, defamatory and racially divisive articles. Indeed, it must stand as the national newspaper with the most lawsuits — and successful ones at that — levelled against it. From October 2011 to February 2013 alone, Utusan Melayu (M) Bhd has had to apologise repeatedly for its reports and been made to pay damages amounting to hundreds of thousands of ringgit for its defamatory articles.
With all of that in mind, what exactly is the government saying when it instructs GLCs to increase its ad spend in Utusan and gives the paper the honour of having a road named after it? Clearly, the government is saying unethical journalism that serves the current ruling party’s interests will be rewarded. Indeed, even if unethical journalism puts the business at risk, the newsroom should rest assured that Umno and the Umno-led government will protect the paper and ensure its survivability.
What incentive, then, would a paper like Utusan have for becoming more responsible, professional and ethical in its reporting?
Apart from sanctioning and urging more unprofessional journalism, the Umno leadership is also aiming to negatively influence sound corporate decision-making. As the communication head of a large corporation remarked in a conversation: “Why would we associate our brand with a media that espouses myopic views and embarrasses the nation?”
And yet, that is exactly what the GLCs are being asked to do.
Additionally, for most well-run companies, the decision of where to place ads is based on data and driven purely by commercial sense. For example, a corporation would look at a particular media company’s audience figures and its audience’s demographics. This would ensure that the corporation’s ads reaches the right target audience and the highest number of their targeted audience, hence securing the highest return on ad spend.
Yet, because the government has written letters to GLC heads to advertise in Utusan, there will be corporations that will feel pressured to put aside best corporate practices in order to stay in the government’s good books.
It’s not just corporate practices Umno is trying to influence. The party has also applied to the Securities Commission (SC) to exempt it from conducting a mandatory general offer to buy out minority shareholders of Utusan Melayu (M) Bhd following its undertaking to subscribe to the rights offer.
Current regulations state that if a shareholder owns more than 33% but less than 50% of a listed company and it increases its shareholding beyond another 2%, it must make an offer to buy out other shareholders. Umno already owns 49.8% of Utusan Melayu (M) Bhd. Given its undertaking to subscribe to the rights offer, Umno will increase its stake to between 53.1% and 67.2%, and hence trigger the mandatory general offer.
And yet, Umno is asking for the SC to exempt the party from this regulation – a regulation that was put in place to protect the integrity of the financial markets and the rights of minority shareholders.
Party above government
What else is wrong about the government’s call to bail out Utusan from its poor performance as a newspaper and a media company? Umno politicians have demonstrated that as far as they are concerned, their government positions can be used for their party’s interest.
The prime minister himself has demonstrated that he has no qualms using his public office to advance his party’s interest and that of a company his party owns. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that a lower-ranking minister like Ahmad Maslan would follow in the party leader’s footsteps. And we shouldn’t also be too astonished when much lower-ranking Umno politicians begin to laud Ahmad Maslan’s directive to the GLCs.
MCA, however, has described Ahmad Maslan’s actions as an abuse of ministerial powers, pointing out that the government was ordering for public funds to be spent on bailing out a private company. Equally critical was PKR, which said that by confusing his roles as deputy minister and Umno publicity chief, Ahmad Maslan had “compromised public interest”.
Cost to the nation
It’s bad enough that Utusan has been allowed by the state to continue reporting in a way that is dishonest, racially polarising, defamatory and damaging to the nation. Umno is now asking the nation to pay an even more exacting price to ensure the survival of a paper that, to quote Najib, “has never backed down in defending our race”.
What is that price? That price is the continuation of an unprofessional and unethical Malay paper; the encouragement of poor corporate and financial governance to serve one’s private interests; and the practice of abusing one’s public office for the sole purpose of protecting and promoting a political party’s interests.
At this juncture, as cliché as it may be, I can’t help but ask: “Apa lagi Umno mahu?”
Jacqueline Ann Surin was thrilled to bits when The New Straits Times had to issue a page-three-lead apology to Bersih 2.0, Suaram, the Centre for Independent Journalism and Merdeka Centre for publishing a false and baseless article that defamed them. She wishes the Malaysian media would learn to be accountable and ethical without having to first be sued.