CONTRARY to popular analyses, it is not the internet that is threatening the traditional media. The biggest enemies of the traditional mass media are the mass media themselves, says Dr Indrajit Banerjee, who is secretary-general for the Singapore-based Asian Media Information and Communication Centre.
“I would say the most critical factor in the decline of the traditional mass media was a growing disconnect between the mass media and their audiences,” he said during a presentation at the Trends and Future of the Malaysian Mass Media forum in Universiti Malaya on 30 Oct 2008.
Hence the growing popularity of news sites and blogs as sources of information, even if much of the content on the internet is not necessarily accurate or fair — values that good reporting and credible news outfits should adhere to.
Still, that disconnect, and the reasons for it, are real.
The price of perception
Malaysia recently dropped further down the list in the Worldwide Press Freedom Index 2008. It is now ranked 132, down from 124 in 2007 and 92 in 2006. The present ranking puts Malaysia below Indonesia (111) and Thailand (124), but above Singapore (144).
This latest fall is merely symptomatic of an ever larger malaise affecting the media here. Confidence in the traditional media has slipped and continues to do so.
According to a recent survey, the traditional media is now battling a new enemy: perception. Having lost its credibility as the peoples’ voice, the traditional media are now scorned for peddling biased information to an increasingly disbelieving public. That scorn is most apparent on the internet, where people have a free hand commenting on issues and the way the traditional media has reported on them.
Even if the public continue to subscribe to newspapers and keep watching the evening news on TV, they are less likely to believe the coverage provided.
“They (the public) may buy the newspaper [representing the traditional media], but they don’t buy into it,” sums up Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ)’s executive director V Gayathry.
The results of a public survey on media independence, commissioned by the CIJ with funding from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, testify to that. The survey showed a significant majority of Malaysians want media independence, with close to half believing the traditional media to be performing below the best of ethical standards.
It also revealed that Malaysians are critically assessing the content of the local traditional media, for which most rely on for information (see chart). For example, only 35% of respondents believed that the traditional media report fairly.
The price of monopoly
Banerjee says the state-controlled traditional media enjoyed decades of monopoly, and as a result did nothing to improve content or to raise journalistic standards. “Instead, they became propaganda instruments,” he notes.
CIJ executive director V GayathryThis, according to CIJ’s Gayathry, was especially clear during the run-up to the 8 March general election.
“We monitored six newspapers and we found that the content of some of them — up to 80% was so obviously pro-Barisan Nasional (BN),” she notes.
However, despite the presumed power of propaganda, the results of 8 March were startling when the opposition managed to reduce the BN’s two-thirds majority in Parliament.
“So, we asked ourselves: they (the public) were buying the papers, but how were they interpreting the information? Did they get so turned off by the coverage that they voted in the opposition? They may have consumed the information but they did not necessarily support it,” Gayathry says.
Banerjee says audience disenchantment with the traditional media is the result of years of monopoly and propaganda. And while before, Malaysians had to rely only on the traditional media because there were no other options, that has now changed with the internet.
Merdeka Centre director Ibrahim Suffian tells The Nut Graph: “In previous surveys conducted by Merdeka Centre, we found that about 90% of the people got their political information from the traditional media. But the election results show that the BN only managed to garner slightly more than half of the popular vote. So it implies that many people did not believe what they had read.
Ibrahim Suffian“They turned to secondary sources for information, such as the alternative media, and especially the internet. The secondary market for alternative news is between 60% and 65%. We believe this is what tipped the balance in favour of the opposition in the last elections.”
One other reason for the media’s disconnect from people’s reality and the diversity of views outside the newsroom is no doubt caused by ownership and controls.
“The media in the country is controlled by political parties or leading political individuals, making it impossible for the traditional media to give any sort of balance to their coverage,” explains Parti Keadilan Rakyat deputy president Dr Syed Husin Ali.
Speaking at the launch of the Centre for Policy Initiatives (CPI) website on 8 Sept, Syed Husin said this control has had a chilling effect on the ability of those in opposition parties to have fair access to the public.
He noted that Malaysia falls way behind its neighbours Indonesia and the Philippines, where different political candidates are given ample coverage in the traditional media.
Media-oppressive laws are also a major reason for unbalanced coverage. Legislation governing the traditional media includes the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), the Broadcasting Act, the Official Secrets Act (OSA) and the Sedition Act. As such, the traditional media finds itself in an unenviable position: to provide fairer news coverage and repair its reputation, it has to risk the government’s displeasure.
And this displeasure can be swift and punitive, coming in the form of a show-cause letter, as levelled at theSun, Sin Chew Daily and Suara Keadilan on 12 Sept; warnings; and even the suspension of publishing licences.
During Operation Lalang in 1987, three newspapers — The Star, Sin Chew Jit Poh and bi-weekly Watan — had their licences suspended for several months.
Syed HusinIn August 2008, Tamil-language daily Makkal Osai was suspended for a month for publishing an image of Jesus Christ holding a cigarette. The ban was, however, lifted a week later.
Syed Husin notes that there are “at least 30 laws that impinge on our right to know.”
The lack of indepth reporting has also resulted in the absence of quality information in the traditional media, Gayathry tells The Nut Graph.
Citing the Eurocopter deal, she says: “It is not sufficient to report who said what at what press conference.”
But with secrecy laws such as the OSA in Malaysia, few journalists would have access to reliable and legitimate documentation when reporting on an issue. And without a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, nothing can be done to compel government to be open and transparent.
Gayathry says Malaysia is indeed falling behind on this score. There are presently more than 70 countries that have a FOI act, with Indonesia and Bangladesh the latest in Asia to adopt such laws.
The OSA and FOI Act are not mutually exclusive, explains Gayathry. This is because ideally, the OSA would have to narrow its definitions, while the FOI Act ensures that there is disclosure where public interest is proven.
“There are countries where both the FOI Act and secrecy laws coexist,” Gayathry explains.
Filling a vacuum
CPI director Lim While waiting for the FOI Act, some outside the media, such as the Centre for Policy Initiatives (CPI), have taken it upon themselves to channel credible information to the public and interested parties.
CPI’s mission is to provide accurate information, data and analyses on vital national issues. Presently, there are about 400 policy papers in the archives coming from the country’s best academic and non-academic minds, says CPI director Dr Lim Teck Ghee.
“All of the data and analyses are for free,” he explains.
The CPI website will hopefully provide the traditional media and the public with another source of information.
But the CPI’s role can only fill up a tiny part of the vacuum. The traditional media still needs to walk the tightrope in giving the public what they want — fair, indepth and quality news — within the confines of the laws that hem it in.