Opposition overcomes media hurdles
Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi speaks to his supporters on March 9, 2008 after his party suffered its worst election result in four decades. (Photo by Kamal Sellehuddin via Flickr)

Opposition overcomes media hurdles

In a Q&A with AsiaMedia contributor Angilee Shah, media scholar Zaharom Nain explains the media's role in Saturday's elections in Malaysia

By Angilee Shah
Contributing Writer

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Malaysia's general election was slated to be one of the most important in years, and indeed the results marked a sea change in Malaysian politics.

The ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (National Front), has been in power since the country's independence in 1957. Now, for the first time since 1969, the party has lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament and thus its control over constitutional reforms. Of the country's 13 states, four states and the capital city of Kuala Lumpur came under the control of opposition parties, while one state remained under the control of the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), as it has been since 1990.

A week before the election, Zaharom Nain, associate professor of communication studies at the Science University of Malaysia, Penang, spoke on a three-person panel about the elections. The panel, held in Penang's Cathedral of the Holy Spirit on March 2, was an example of the swelling discontent Malaysian people have with BN. Nain, who edited Who Owns the Media?: Global Trends and Local Resistance, explained the constraints on Malaysia's media, as well as new and alternative media in the run-up to the election.

He talked to AsiaMedia contributing writer Angilee Shah by email about how opposition candidates dealt with media restrictions. The following has been condensed and edited.

Angilee Shah: What kinds of media restrictions did opposition parties face in the elections?
Zaharom Nain: So many. First, they had no access to the mainstream media because of the ownership and control patterns of the media. All four Malaysian free-to-air commercial television stations (TV3, ntv7, TV8 and Channel 9) are owned by one company, Media Prima, which is closely aligned with the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant political party in the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition. The mainstream media also did not publish any advertisements by the opposition, as far as I can remember.

Second, because of Malaysia's draconian media laws, such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), all newspapers must have a publishing permit which needs to be renewed every year, and approval of the permit is determined by one individual: the home minister. Similar licensing controls apply for television and radio.

AS: How did opposition candidates overcome these restrictions?
ZN: They didn't exactly overcome them as much as they improvised, largely using the Internet and other forms of new communication technology. Mobile phones, which were used similarly in campaigns in the Philippines, blogs, e-mails, YouTube and SMS were all utilized not only by the opposition parties, but also by Malaysian civil society to raise consciousness, to create awareness about the issues at stake and to outline the opposition's joint or individual stands on these issues.

AS: What kind of role did opposition media play in their surprising victories around the country?
ZN: If by "opposition media" you mean the media controlled or owned by the opposition, apart from PAS's newspaper, Harakah, and its online version, the other opposition parties really do not have "opposition media" to boast of. If, on the other hand, you mean "alternative media" such as Malaysiakini, Malaysia's first independent online newspaper, blogs and YouTube, then I would say that these helped to spread the opposition's messages.

But I wouldn't go so far as to say that the alternative media played a very crucial role in the opposition's victories. Other factors, such as the people's anger at the apparent inability of the BN government to address, let alone curb, corruption, rising prices, increasing crime rates, ethnic and religious tensions -- despite the promises made by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's administration -- all contributed greatly to the people's anger and the mass desertions virtually nationwide.

The regime had become too arrogant, virtually ignoring the needs of large members of the Malaysian population. This, plus the populist appeal of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who is now heading the People's Justice Party, all helped substantially to gain victories for the opposition.

AS: Has BN made use of alternative media?

ZN: Yes, UMNO does have its own website. A mischievous answer to that question would be that the BN does make use of alternative media in so far as it purportedly has "cybertroopers" -- a group of, among other things, hackers who monitor anti-BN material on the Internet and then attempt to sabotage these websites.

AS: What were some of the trends in mainstream media's coverage of the various parties prior to Saturday's elections?
ZN: Quite simply -- and as with previous elections -- the opposition was virtually ignored, or worse, demonized. When there was coverage, it was more often than not negative: running down the opposition or belittling their strategies, policies and manifestos. The coverage was about them and rarely by them. Hence, their voices were not heard, as it were.

AS: You've called the mainstream media in Malaysia a "dictatorship of the market." Can you explain what you meant by that?

ZN: What I meant was that the operations, motives, direction and contents of the Malaysian media are subservient to the needs of the market. This, of course, is not unique to Malaysia. But what I was trying to highlight essentially was that the Malaysian mainstream media are directed and constrained by two interrelated entities: the state and the market.

And because the Malaysian state -- more specifically the component parties in the BN coalition -- also has more than a finger in the mainstream media pie, through direct and indirect ownership, there tends to be collusion between the state and the market.

AS: How do laws in Malaysia affect investigative reporting, particularly with regards to politics?
ZN: There is virtually no investigative reporting in Malaysia because of the existence of quite a number of draconian laws, such as the Internal Security Act that allows the indefinite detention of any individual without trial. Hence, anyone can be arrested by the police and incarcerated without any reason offered for the arrest.

The Official Secrets Act allows for the arrest, fine and/or imprisonment of any person caught publishing or publicizing what are deemed to be "official secrets," a vague term for virtually any government document. Technically, the minutes of state university faculty meetings, for example, are official secrets.

There are also the PPPA, which I talked about earlier, and the Sedition Act, another catch-all act that prevents the publication and distribution of "seditious" material. Often it is material deemed to be insulting the king, questioning the rights of the Malays, and questioning or ridiculing Islam. Actions deemed seditious are punishable with a fine and/or imprisonment.