Another day in media paradise

Press freedom activists are noticing increased restrictions being placed on media sources before Malaysia’s election.

Men look at newspapers in Malaysia
The media remains an important channel of accountability, but activists say controls are tightening [GALLO/GETTY]

When it was reported recently – fewer than ten days before polling day – that Twitter accounts run by influential news portal Malaysiakini were hijacked and access to their website has been “restricted”, keen followers of media issues in Malaysia were not surprised. Creating bottlenecks at the ISP level may be new, but Distributed Denial-of-Service attacks are old stories from previous elections.

But media freedom advocates note the ratcheting up of various forms of control. Just this past year, calls to radio station owners and TV news producers from the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), the controller for broadcast media and online content, have reportedly become more frequent than during previous polls.

You don’t have to be a jaded news junkie to feel the heat being put on senior editors who battle regulators more frequently come election time. A cryptic text message I received a good two months before polling day from a broadcast journalist said it all: “The noose is being tightened. I am choking.”

Commercial TV or radio stations rarely go public about the reality of authorities breathing down their neck. How does one highlight a violation that is taking place without outing the media source? This curveball thrown at media activists can be overcome only after some amount of sleuth work, paving the way for oblique references to the existence of political interference.

Two weeks ago, a check on the comment section on the election homepage [Malay] of Astro, a satellite television service here, showed subscribers complaining about coverage which heavily favoured the BN coalition. One post, called for a boycott: “Astro subscribers are from many political persuasions. If Astro is proven to be unfair, there’s talk that subscribers are calling for large-scale protest for customers to terminate their subscription.”

The viewers are simply asserting their right as paying subscribers who want their political views being equitably represented on air. For the media activist, an alert from an insider – then substantiated by website posts from subscribers in the public domain – appear to point to an example of control by the authorities.

But unless the puzzle pieces are put together, we would not be able to see the fingerprints censors leave behind.

No-one knew that international news feed from the likes of BBC, CNBC, and Al Jazeera are put on a five-minute tape delay, while these broadcasts are scanned for objectionable footage or keywords. Not until a former Astro employee revealed it to online portal Asia Sentinel after a YouTube video showing scenes of police beating up protesters during a Bersih 3 rally a year ago were cut from a BBC news clip.

In another case, listeners of bfm found out in the past two weeks that broadcast regulator MCMC had instructed the popular radio station to stick to coverage of finance and business and steer clear of the elections.

More often than not, media owners and editors maintain silence to avoid the full wrath of the regulators. Their caution is real. For broadcast, their own licenses could be at stake. For print, their newspaper permits and printing press licences could be revoked by the home ministry.

Those who work in the belly of the beast know the impact long-term constraints can have on journalistic principles. Passivity, brought on by restrictive laws, thrives in the newsroom, more so in those owned directly or indirectly by the Barisan Nasional (BN) constituent parties which have been in power for more than 55 years. Coupled with a toe-the-line prescription promoted by editorial leaders, over time, this tame approach – the polar opposite of the media’s watchdog role – becomes standard operating procedure in the newsroom.

It is not that journalists do not know the importance of their work. Fair reporting in this election is in line with the National Union of Journalists’ (NUJ) Code of Ethics and was one of the resolutions passed at the NUJ Extraordinary Delegates Conference on March 3, 2012. But to report without fear or favour has ceased to be the modus operandi for traditional media for decades.

Such are the realities faced by media in Malaysia, in an environment where restrictive regulations rule, and changes following promises of reform from Prime Minister Najib Razak fall way short of standards upheld by the world’s best democracies.

Journalists staying true to standards of accuracy, fairness and responsibility on any normal day is a challenge, moreso during this feverish election period, when the stakes are high and the now-or-never opportunity for change – “ubah” in local political parlance – is bandied around by pundits and politicians alike.

The job of professional journalists is to fully inform citizens of the issues and their choices so they can decide for themselves for whom to vote.

And just in case the media gets a bit too excited in carrying out that duty and forgets who holds the leash, their phone inevitably rings. Things may change in the next few months, but for now, it is just another day in paradise.

Masjaliza Hamzah, a former journalist and research manager, has been the executive officer at the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) since March 2010. CIJ is a non-profit organisation which promotes media freedom and access to information in Malaysia.

In collaboration with the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, CIJ is conducting the Watching the Watchdog monitoring of GE13 media coverage.