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Covering the elections fairly

I WAS struck last week by theSun’s reporting of the Pakatan Rakyat (PR)’s convention and newly unveiled manifesto. The 26 Feb 2013 coverage featured a full page on the PR convention and another colour page with a summary of the manifesto’s highlights. The articles were generally neutral and informative, and gave a good overview of what the PR was promising if it were to take federal power at the next general election. Reports the next day focused on analysts and non-governmental organisations’ critical reactions to the manifesto.

(Click on image to view full article)

(Click on image to view full summary of the PR manifesto)

This was quite different from The Star’s coverage. Its article citing Barisan Nasional (BN) leaders rubbishing the manifesto was longer than the one on what the manifesto was actually about. New Straits Times was full of one-sided name-calling quotes: the manifesto was described as “empty promises”, “full of lies”, “a ploy to fool the people” and something that would “ruin the economy”. And Utusan Malaysia couldn’t help itself but to blur the lines between commentary and the news. In Pakatan kitar semula manifesto, the paper declared that the PR was once again making promises without proving they could implement them, before listing the manifesto’s proposals.


(Click on the image for coverage by theSun)

Reading reports on the PR manifesto foreshadows what media coverage will be like during the 13th General Election (GE13). theSun’s PR manifesto coverage demonstrates that fair and informative reporting is possible, even in Malaysia’s politically controlled media climate. This then made me think – what other elements would I would wish for in the media’s coverage of the looming polls?

Equal and fair


(Click on image for coverage by The Star)

It would be really refreshing to see our traditional media giving equal space and air time to all candidates, instead of the usual barrage of BN-friendly articles. The role of the media is to equip voters with as much knowledge as possible so that citizens can make informed decisions at the polls in the interest of what’s best for our democracy.

The media can do that by ensuring all candidates and political parties during the election have equal opportunity and space to present their credentials and promises to the rakyat. At the same time, both the BN and PR’s achievements and missteps should be highlighted. If the BN government has been working as hard as Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak says, BN leaders should relish the chance at being compared to and outshining their PR counterparts, instead of dominating the news cycles with self-congratulatory reports. After all, if there’s no apparent competition to show that the BN is better, then why should anybody be convinced that the BN is superior to the PR?

(Click on image for more coverage from The Star)

(Click on image for more coverage from The Star)

A fair media would also put opposition leaders on the front pages from time to time, instead of the usual suspects of Najib and his Cabinet members. Being constantly bombarded by flattering images of Najib could lead some to conclude that our prime minister has an unhealthy preoccupation with favourable photo opportunities. This perception is further strengthened when stories emerge of photographs being doctored to depict him surrounded by large crowds. How about putting a photograph of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and his supporters on the front page, for a change? He is, after all, the opposition leader, a recognised parliamentary position, and not an enemy of the state as the traditional media, in particular Utusan, is so keen to portray him as.

And how about BN-controlled newspapers being a little self-critical? Along with its articles vilifying the DAP, The Star could, for instance, ask questions about why Chinese Malaysians appear to have abandoned the MCA. And alongside questioning PAS’s Islamic credentials, Utusan could explore whether it’s time for Umno to modify its race-based claim for “ketuanan Melayu”. If the press could demonstrate that they are willing to be equally critical of all parties vying for power, it would be so much easier for citizens to trust that there is no hidden agenda behind a newspaper’s criticisms of a politician or party. It would also demonstrate that the press has the public’s interest at heart, and was not being driven by partisan self-interest.

Public interest and credibility

One may ask, why would the BN-controlled media portray the BN negatively and give more space to the BN’s opponents? For one, a paper may hold certain political views, but that should be reserved for its commentary section. It should not be withholding news detrimental to the party it supports, or suppressing its opponents’ political views and promises, as that would mean abdicating its primary role to serve the public.

Then there’s the question of credibility. Today’s voters no longer overlook or tolerate uninformed bias and inaccurate reporting because the truth is bound to leak out through social media. Any media, whether traditional or online, that continues to unashamedly demonstrate either is pawning off its credibility. If people are only reading a newspaper “to see where the sales are” or “for the classifieds” or “to see what the government is thinking”, then that paper has lost its most valuable currency.

Beppe Grillo (Wiki commons)

In fact, if the media, whether print or online, cannot produce fair, informed, honest and well-argued coverage, it risks being sidelined altogether. Take, for example, Beppe Grillo, an Italian comedian-blogger, who led a brand new party in Italy’s recently concluded general election. His party astoundingly won more than 25% of the vote. He completely shunned the traditional media, and campaigned only through social media and holding large rallies. Grillo’s success, which has created problems of its own for Italy’s government, occurred in an environment where only 11% of the public trust the press [1].

The Malaysian public’s trust may not have sunk to such dismal levels. But if our media do not stop adulating and adoring those in power and start holding power accountable, it won’t be too long before we reach the same levels.

Why care?

Fair coverage is but one of the many issues a media outfit needs to bear in mind during elections. It also needs to examine the key campaign issues, and ask insightful questions on whether a party is capable of fulfilling their promises, and analyse whether those pledges will benefit the people. It needs to closely follow the electoral process, and expose incompetency, corruption and fraud. This needs to be done by both traditional and online media outfits.

Why should we care whether or not the traditional media is able to fulfil this role? Well, for one, a large number of people still read the newspapers. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, Utusan’s circulation last year was over 180,000 a day; New Straits Times over 100,000; and The Star close to 300,000. And, more importantly, a fair and independent press, both print and online, is vital for any functioning democracy.

What’s in store for us then this general election? Judging from what we’re seeing now in the traditional media, things will get worse before they ever get better. It’s up to us then to read the news critically and to keep demanding that our media adhere to higher standards. There’s no running away from it if we want Malaysia to be a world-class democracy. After all, it’s not for no reason that the media is called the fourth estate. The Nut Graph

Ding Jo-Ann is part of the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ)’s media monitoring team for the upcoming GE13. She was previously CIJ’s media monitor and has monitored media coverage of both Bersih 2.0 and Bersih 3.0. She is also the co-author of CIJ’s Freedom of Expression 2011 report.

[1] Guardian survey

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6 Responses to “Covering the elections fairly”

  1. Better My says:

    It would really be wonderful if Ding Jo-Ann’s urging of a fair election exposure to major parties is realised from her write-up above. Sadly, we all know it has never been and will not be in current times.

    When the independence of the media is installed under a new democratic govt to provide real comprehensive competition to mainstream media infiltrated with twisted editorial mindsets, why would anyone want to buy these papers? They will die a quick natural death as their readership will plummet. Insolvency will knock on these doors in quick time, if the pressure on them to change wholesale to good journalism, from the new government, is not successful. Their past and present news are purely stale recorded noises of insignificance with hidden devilish intent to divide races and cause racial disharmony. These papers are really fit for other types of uses rather than informing readers.

    Hata Wahari, previously elected President of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) said it best. There are:
    Editors/journalist types who should be castrated twice leaving no trace of testicle remains,
    Press Prostitutes – who should be castrated too,
    Media Marionettes – useless puppets with 2gms of grey cells only,
    Junket Journalists – freebies junkies, and
    Wise Writers – goodie smartie “silent writers, thread a fine line under crony bosses.

    In reference to Hata Wahari, until the castration is near to completion and to the rakyat’s satisfaction, it is only in our dreams till the next GE that we have a free [traditional] press and government and private media exposure to the second major party as well, as all developed nations do in real life, to tell all [about their] policies for the rakyat to choose wisely the right party for the country.

  2. Better My says:

    In line with Ding Jo-Ann’s subject on the fair press for major parties in main media, her calling is heard. Anwar Ibrahim gets mainstream No 1 newspaper exposure today! He gets to say it as it is. We read him in the prime media, published 7000 Km away, in developed Australia. From feedback, this is a No 1 paper in Sydney/Australia. Anwar’s article is on TWO full page article, no adverts!

    Some of Anwar’s extracts:
    Speaking in his party’s multistorey headquarters in central Kuala Lumpur, Dr Anwar, described economic policies that give supremacy to Malays as ”archaic” and ”disconcerting” and pledged to introduce affirmative action policies that benefit all the poor, no matter what their ethnicity.

    The new Malaysia he would lead ”must have an open outlook, not the xenophobic, closed-minded thinking we have now”.

    Dr Anwar said he would pursue a strong relationship with Australia but criticised Australian politicians who have come to Malaysia and praised its development. ”They are only shown the Twin Towers [in Kuala Lumpur] or the longest bridge or the largest dam,” he said. Dr Anwar said they are not shown, for example, ethnic Indian Malaysians living in disgusting conditions on dilapidated estates.

    ”The underlying principle we have adopted is that it must be a vibrant, economically mature democracy with freedom of conscience, freedom of expression and rule of law,” Dr Anwar said.

    Imagine if Star/Utusan/New Straits Times/other govt controlled media gave similar exposure… Heavens!

    If political leaders from major political parties have any substantial subjects to express for the rakyat’s knowledge and for a better Malaysia, they must given reasonable print or air time within the media’s commercial interest, post-GE by a new government. This is how a developed country behaves and this is what we expect of a developed Malaysia in the future, nothing less.

  3. ellese says:

    Again, I always find this type of write up selective. In essence I agree with the theme. I have always propounded that all must adopt US SPJ standard. What this means is that such standards must apply to both MSM and pro-PR [alternative media] (AM) and not to one only.

    I can agree with the criticisms of MSM but always find a problem that most who condemn MSM have selective principles. Believe it or not almost all of them defend pro-PR AM who adopt similar or worse standards. And worst are editors/ journalists who condemn MSM standards but practice the same at pro-PR AM.

    For example, criticism of NST, Utusan and Star can be made here. However I have been censored countless of time for mentioning certain pro-PR AM/news aggregator-style of reporting. Why is this?

    I want all our media to be fair. To report the facts objectively. Not write what is good about who you support and bad about who you don’t support. I want writing [that] puts facts as they are. Don’t distort the facts, the headlines and pictures. Get views from both sides. Allow all side and views to be publish. Quote reputable sources and not any Tom, Dick od Harry. And please-lah, don’t put comments or views to the facts so as to slant a perception. We can discern and think.

    The worse perpetrator of these principles to me are news agencies who claim they believe in independent and free media but without any sense of guilt censor and ban contrarian views. Apparently I cannot name this pro-PR news aggregator but you all know it because it will be censored again here. This is the problem we have. Intolerant of contrarian views. Thus to most Malaysians, a free media is a media when it publishes your views and censors contrarian views. We are doomed, for no one cares about truth and objectivity.

    • JW Tan says:

      None of that is in the SPJ code of ethics. It stipulates that fact and commentary are clearly labelled, sources are identified where possible, facts are checked etc. But I don’t think it states that only ‘reputable’ sources must be used, or that an editorial stance needs to be ‘fair’.

      In fact, according to Wikipedia (, the SPJ code of ethics says that ‘unofficial sources’ may be as equally valid as ‘official sources’.

      I think you are confusing good journalism with journalism that feeds your own personal bias.

    • Wave33 says:

      Dear Ellese,

      As usual, you just cannot stick to the topic.

      Quote: Again, I always find this type of write up selective. In essence I agree with the theme.
      >> Anything that is not to your liking is selective. Opinion is always selective. Are you able to accept it?

      Quote: What this means is that such standards must apply to both MSM and pro-PR [alternative media] (AM) and not to one only.
      >> Ellese, please understand what you refuse to understand and accept. It is Main Stream Media compare to Alternative Media. MSM has a national obligation and needs a license. Don’t you think your guns should be aim at MSM, instead?

      Quote: And worst are editors/ journalists who condemn MSM standards but practice the same at pro-PR AM.
      >> Ellese, you are the same hypocrite(sorry not intended pun). You only whack AM but not the MSM.

      Quote: However I have been censored countless of time for mentioning certain pro-PR AM/news aggregator-style of reporting. Why is this?
      >> I don’t know what they censored but it has to be a good reason because you always go out of topic, spins and twist.

      Quote: I want all our media to be fair. To report the facts objectively. And please-lah, don’t put comments or views to the facts so as to slant a perception.
      >> Yalar, where are your long awaited comments on Utusan Malaysia and TV3. Have you done anything to counter their misreporting? […]

      Quote: Thus to most Malaysians, a free media is a media when it publishes your views and censors contrarian views. We are doomed, for no one cares about truth and objectivity
      >> YES! We are doomed if we have Utusan Malaysia and TV3 that continue to report lies and Ellese, do not care about the truth and objectivity to counter what lies that Utusan Malaysia and TV3 had spreads to our beloved nation.


  4. The so called “traditional media” the writer here refers to is the mainstream print media. Putting that aside there are factual misrepresentations which she uses as her feedstock to advance a fanciful proposition about media fairness and its perceived bias against the Pakatan.

    What Ding Jo Ann and others like her fail to do is to convince their readership that they are themselves full of biases and are patently if not rabidly anti government and pro Pakatan.

    One need not go further than to read into the highly inflammatory and often patronizing articles on Malays and on Islam by non Malays and non Muslims (read Chinese) on this blog the Nutgraph.

    In any given political environment the incumbent government has an advantage when it comes to elections. They are possessed of the powers of the constitution and their sovereignty which apart from anything else like the resources of money and manpower put them in the drivers seat in any battle.

    The commercially driven media especially where revenue and earnings are concerned have to be flexible enough to understand where their “bread is buttered”. That does not mean prostituting their position or upholding common morality where right, wrong and the truth is concerned.

    Coming to the opposition, it is difficult for anyone in any stream of the media to give the Malaysian opposition any credibility or to dress it any better than it has already dressed itself.

    With its genesis in the womb of foreign forces (the Neo Cons, Soros, Civil Societies and the NED), an act of treachery no self respecting independent nation or people could countenance, the opposition was doomed to hang.

    Adding to its woes in respect of its alliance and allegiance to undemocratic populist agencies like the ones mentioned above they have added for effect a highly chauvinistic and racist DAP, a political party that screams its Chinese manifestos and Chinese exclusive mindset with its unashamedly exclusive Chinese slogans demanding we condemn the BN.

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