YET again, the online media in Malaysia is under attack. One of the latest rebukes comes from Kelab Wartawan Muda Malaysia (KWMM) president Dzulkarnian Taib who wants the authorities to curb Malaysiakini, including shutting it down, because of its “lopsided” reporting.
Dzulkarnian is not alone in his views. Senior Barisan Nasional (BN) politicians have also lambasted the online media. Newly-minted Home Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi for example, recently accused Malaysiakini of “spin”, “twisting statements” and “creating things which are not there”. He ominously warned the news portal that he would be monitoring it very closely.
But is the online media’s reporting as biased and lopsided as the BN and its allies make it out to be?
Online most balanced
A recent media monitoring project over the general election period found that, in fact, online media was the most balanced in terms of coverage of both BN and Pakatan Rakyat (PR). The project, titled Watching the Watchdog, was conducted jointly by the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) and Nottingham University’s Malaysian campus. Up to 70 coders collected data from all election news items, line by line, minute by minute, from 7 April until just after the 5 May 2013 elections. It reviewed television news and newspapers from both east and west Malaysia, online media Malaysiakini and The Malaysian Insider, and wire service Bernama.
The results of the first two weeks of monitoring for Bernama and television news demonstrated how markedly skewed both media were. Bernama gave BN a whopping 61% of its coverage compared to only 34% for PR. Television news was equally unbalanced. A total of 59% of its election coverage was on the BN, while PR only received 30%, with the remaining close to 11% devoted to independents and other election news.
The 17 newspapers that were monitored fared slightly better. Of its total coverage, 52% was on BN and 42% on PR.
As for the online media, it did have more opposition coverage than the traditional media. However, the difference between its total coverage of PR compared to its total coverage of BN was much smaller than the difference in print and broadcast. PR received 47% of the online media’s coverage compared to BN’s 45%, a mere 2% difference.
Additionally, when the data is analysed for positive or negative tone, BN received overwhelmingly positive news in Bernama, on television and in the newspapers. PR mostly received negative news in these media.
Conversely, even though the BN received negative coverage in the online media, it received more positive coverage proportionally. And while the online media did report on PR more positively than their counterparts on television or in print, it actually carried more negative coverage on the opposition coalition than it did positive news.
These statistics are a serious challenge to the oft-repeated claims that the online media give undue coverage to the opposition and are unfair towards the BN.
“What is PKR?”
In fact, what is evident is that it is the traditional media, and not the online media, that is in serious need of reform. That reform should begin with Bernama and RTM. Both are funded by public monies. Hence, they should be serving the public interest better by providing fairer coverage that reflects the media’s role in keeping citizens informed in a democracy.
A delegate at Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)’s recent national congress said that in some Felda settlements, citizens didn’t even know about the party. “They will ask you, what is PKR”, she was quoted in The Edge.
If this is true, it highlights the failings of the traditional print and broadcast media which are the primary information source for many rural citizens. If citizens don’t even know the name of a main opposition party, the media is clearly not providing enough information. And at this rate, we can for certain forget that the traditional media are providing citizens with sufficient knowledge and views to make an informed choice during elections.
And as CIJ and Nottingham University’s research findings demonstrate, such critical gaps in a citizen’s knowledge would only happen if voters relied solely on the traditional media as is the case where internet penetration is low. It would clearly not happen if a citizen depended solely on the online media for news and information.
It is therefore disingenuous of BN politicians and their pressure groups to claim that there is media freedom because the opposition gets more airtime in the online media. It is also duplicitous to declare that it’s OK for the traditional media to be pro-BN since the online media is pro-opposition.
Firstly, the opposition doesn’t get so much more airtime and better coverage in the online media. Indeed, the Watching the Watchdog project demonstrates that BN gets nearly as much coverage, and positive coverage at that, in the online media, too.
Secondly, the internet is a much freer space. Anyone can set up a website or blog without requiring a licence unlike print and broadcast media which require government permits. So even if there were more positive news about PR online, the BN is free to fill cyberspace with cheery news about itself and criticise PR all it wants. This, it generally does, through BN-friendly blogs and the openly-acknowledged BN cybertroopers.
If opposition-related news is more popular online with citizens, this is more likely to do with the lack of credible opposition coverage in the BN-controlled traditional media. The BN thus has only itself to blame if internet users gravitate towards opposition news online.
What should also be noted is that the 2013 election results forefront a Catch-22 situation for PR and the electorate. Even though it is the traditional media which is clearly “lopsided” and in many instances unethical, PR and its supporters cannot ignore the traditional media. For example, PR cannot call for a traditional media boycott and pooh-pooh what they say and then wonder later why rural results differed so greatly from urban centres where the internet penetration and usage is high.
Sure, the online media provides many of us in urban settings with all the information we need without us having to ever pick up a newspaper or watch the news on TV. But many others are being deprived of critical information because they only have access to newspapers and TV.
It is clear that serious reforms are needed to make the public-funded media more independent and to free the newspapers from government control. In the meantime, we need to continue supporting the independent online media, as it appears that they are the only ones capable of giving us balanced news for now.
Ding Jo-Ann was part of CIJ’s media monitoring team for 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.