“The World Press Freedom Index dictates that our country is making strides in its handling of information. But they’re judging solely from the willingness of the GoM to allow alternative media outlets to exist. If they were to factor in the hidden forms of control, our index would surely not have seen such a marked improvement”
Raggie Jessy Rithaudeen
Press freedom in Malaysia may well be at its worst. And we’re not just talking since Pakatan Harapan took over as government, but since Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad resigned as Prime Minister in 2003. Despite reports of Malaysia’s 22-notch jump on the World Press Freedom bar, the overall climate in mainstream reporting isn’t reflective of sentiments abound. Everything we’re reading seems thrusted on propaganda fuelled by the federal government. The pro-opposition sites think they have it figured but are merely responding to issues aimlessly. If Mahathir were to fart, they call it poison gas. If he were to say go, they simply tell him to stop. Period.
This back and forth was first triggered by the mudslinging campaign that led to Pakatan’s unprecedented victory during the last general election. In the lead up, camp Mahathir, supported by paid DAP cyber troopers, exacerbated the (then) already crippling fake news problem with video productions featuring the man himself, with performances worthy of Oscar awards. Back then, Mahathir and gang were disseminating so many lies that you’d have to dig deep into the internet to get the other side of the story. Today, he is leading a legion of media protagonists towards a new campaign using the mainstream media as his bandwagon.
That’s not so much of a problem if you consider that the mainstream media does tend to favour the government of the day. The problem is, Mahathir has brought along with him his incredible supply of fairy tales and fake news. He’s done it in such a way that the press can now tell you things that aren’t the truth without feeling guilty about it. When Pakatan ministers lie, he expects the mainstream media to lie along with them. If they don’t, they risk losing monetary support from whoever it is that’s giving them money. All the media has to do now is to tell you that they’re merely reporting what government ministers have to say.
Take Lim Guan Eng for example.
Between June 2018 and early this month, his take on the national debt went from RM1 trillion to RM725.2 billion – which he admitted during the tabling of Budget 2019 – to RM1 trillion again. The mainstream media reported it. That’s fine, if the intent is to report things a minister may say. Problem is, you don’t see critical pieces that point to the obvious lie. Should an Ahmad or Lingam somewhere suddenly come up with a piece doing the math and proving Lim wrong, that media channel is likely to bite the dust.
See the problem?
Mahathir’s golden rule has always been to deprive the opposition of oxygen. The whisper in my ear was that Tun Daim Zainuddin and A Kadir Jasin held a series of ‘pep talks’ with some media head honchos and cautioned them against giving the opposition room. Elements of such control existed even during the Najib era, though thing’s weren’t nearly as bad. You did have websites being blocked and all – which you don’t now – but Najib never had this rule about keeping the opposition away from the media spotlights altogether. Every once so often, you’d see Tony Pua popping up on TV screens giving you the not-so-accurate depictions of how the national debt worked. And when it came to Mahathir, it was almost as if he was the Prime Minister of Malaysia, not Najib.
Not only did the mainstream media cover all his press conferences, they published each and every one of his quips and witty ripostes. Today, you do have the occasional segment on Najib and his “Bossku” program, but it has been cleverly crafted to captivate his audience. Initially, the media gave him a lot of face-time to say whatever he wanted. Gradually, though, they swayed public opinion against him by reporting the negative things Pakatan leaders had to say. It’s not as if the media suddenly decided to go for Pakatan and abandon Najib altogether. On contraire, it is the Pakatan leaders who suddenly found the need to talk a lot about Najib and got the media to tone down on his coverage.
The opposition doesn’t see this.
They don’t realise that the whole thing was well planned to captivate the attention of Najib’s supporters before feeding them with disinformation. This is but one of the many examples how the mainstream media has gradually been turned into a “selective outrage machine” to brainwash the people. What the government is doing has ultimately given rise to multiple media channels online that are completely biased in favour of the opposition and are aimlessly responding to every other issue PH raises. In one sense, this can be a good thing, as the overall delivery of information from both sides does present readers the broad spectrum of details. The problem is, you don’t find many people covering middle ground.
As a result, you have the not-so-accurate depiction of news by the mainstream media and the more-accurate-but-knee-jerk reporting by the alternative. Malaysians tend to have herd mentalities and often ride on blind faith. Because of this, you have large numbers of die-hard PH supporters singing praises of Lim Kit Siang and an equally large number of BN apologists who’re all about Najib. As long as nobody covers middle ground, we’re never going to discover just how many right-thinking Malaysians there are out there who’re frustrated with the stuff they’re reading. And covering middle ground is all about being able to criticise both sides of the spectrum without sugarcoating truths to appease either one side.
So, if you do believe that BN was wrong not to have amended the Federal Constitution of Malaysia to turn Islam into the “official religion of the Federation,” you have to step up to the challenge and make your feelings known. Likewise, if you truly believe that Mahathir should stay on as Prime Minister until the 15th general election to prevent Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim from taking over, do say so by all means. Trying to appease the die-hard loyalist by sugarcoating truths is only going to frustrate the silent, right-thinking majority.
And the more the silent majority is frustrated, the higher the likelihood that its composition ends up being duped by PH. The World Press Freedom Index dictates that our country is making strides in its handling of information. But they’re judging solely from the willingness of the GoM to allow alternative media outlets to exist. If they were to factor in the hidden forms of control, our index would surely not have seen such a marked improvement. I, for one, consider Mahathir’s unwillingness to present opposition leaning organisations more face-time a form of control and oppression. As it is, they’re already tampering with thethirdforce.net and have made very subtle attempts to block my site.