Controlling the media

By Jacqueline Ann Surin

(TV pic by Frecuencia; remote control pic by Lusi; source: sxc.hu)

JUST before Datuk Seri Najib Razak became Malaysia's sixth prime minister on 3 April 2009, I was asked by a Malaysiakini reporter whether I thought there would be further media restrictions under his administration. Some sectors of society imagined, rightly or wrongly, that Najib would control the media even more than his predecessor, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

My answer then was that it was hard to predict what exactly Najib would do. Whether or not there would be further media restrictions would depend as much on Najib and his advisers as well as on civil society, I figured.

But more than three months have passed since Najib assumed office. Whether or not media controls have worsened, one thing is certain: the evidence demonstrates that media control continues under Najib's administration.

These controls have twin objectives. Rather alarmingly, though not unexpectedly, one of the objectives is to unashamedly protect the image of the Najib administration at all costs. The other objective is to unfairly disadvantage the Pakatan Rakyat (PR).

"Shoot" the journalist

Where's the proof? One of the most recent incidents of clear media control was when ntv7 talk show host-cum-producer, Florence Looi, was issued a warning letter by her management and downgraded in her responsibilities.

What exactly did she do to warrant such disciplinary action? She asked two guests on her current affairs show, Point of View, to rate Najib's performance in his first 100 days. One of her guests, Malaysian Insider consultant editor Leslie Lau, gave Najib a "C" or "D".

ntv7 logoLooi was taken to task for asking a legitimate question. Stranger still, she was taken to task by her superiors because apparently, such questions violate ntv7's "editorial policy".

I'll be happy to wager though that had Lau given Najib an "A" or even a "B" rating, Looi would not have gotten into any kind of trouble. Really, it's hard not to look at what happened to Looi and surmise that a journalist was punished for doing her job honestly and professionally.

Malaysian journalists for certain don't experience the same kind of violence that our Filipino counterparts do when it comes to reporting the truth. Filipino journalists are often murdered or physically threatened as a way to silence them.

While Looi's life is not being threatened, a similar principle is at work in the ntv7 newsroom as in the Philippines. Looi was punished so that she, and her peers in the TV station, would learn to keep silent when reporting critically about those in power. The method used by ntv7 may be mild in comparison to the methods employed in the Philippines, but the intention is the same.

Protect Umno

Just as importantly, what kind of media organisation actually imposes a policy against asking legitimate questions about and of politicians, especially the prime minister who needs to be the most accountable public servant in the country? Answer: the kind that is owned by Media Prima — a company that is closely linked to Umno.

Khir Toyo (Pic by johnleemk / Wiki
Indeed, there have been other instances that suggest rather convincingly that the Media Prima management running their stable of media companies is consciously "protecting" Umno politicians from adverse publicity. Even before the incident with Looi, the company applied a blanket ban about news regarding the mansion in Shah Alam that former Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Mohd Khir Toyo is building.

Even earlier, about two weeks after Najib became premier, the four private TV stations under Media Prima — TV3, ntv7, 8TV and tv9 — were ordered not to name political analyst Abdul Razak Baginda, Najib's close aide, when reporting on the Altantuya Shaariibuu murder case.


Apart from politically linked media companies protecting Umno's image, government-run and controlled media such as RTM are also ensuring that nothing besmirches or threatens the Najib administration.

Hence, the rather peculiar set of guidelines that RTM issued to its nine radio stations after Najib came to power. Merdeka Review reported on 15 May 2009 that a notice banning seven "sensitive" matters from being discussed on air was issued to prevent "controversy". The banned topics were opposition politics (ostensibly this refers to the PR), sex, race, language, religion, the monarchy, and issues of morality in current politics.

More recently, Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, who is the political secretary to Selangor Menteri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim and also the PR state assemblyperson for Seri Setia, had his invitation to appear on an RTM talk show rescinded for no apparent reason.

Nik Nazmi
To be fair to Najib, he may not even be the one issuing these directives to the media. In all likelihood, these directives in both the private and public media are being issued by others to ensure that entrenched political interests are served.

Having said that, though, the prime minister surely cannot be oblivious about what is happening, especially when these incidents of media control have become public information as a result of online media coverage.

So, if Najib really wanted a "vibrant, free and informed media", what is he doing about the restrictions that continue to hamper the media from doing its work without fear or favour? What has he done to publicly demonstrate that media control by the government or by political parties is not what he desires for this nation? Unfortunately, nothing.

It would be a mistake for the rakyat to assume that just because the prime minister speaks of a free and vibrant media, this then is really what he intends to have in this country. There really is no evidence at all, since Najib came to power, that that is what his administration is interested in.

They say silence is consent. This is especially true when it involves a person in power who can speak up to rectify a wrong. Najib is, for all intents and purposes, the most powerful man in the country right now. His silence about continued media restrictions speaks volumes.

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