Malaysia one year after Pakatan Harapan rule

I risk being labelled as a Pakatan Harapan apologist but I’ll say it as it is anyway.

Under the Pakatan Harapan rule, the media in Malaysia is enjoying freedom as never before and that’s a fact.

I agree with a Malay Mail Online report published in May which said that after a year of Pakatan Harapan rule, the

Malaysian media is going through some positive developments as the new government repealed or set aside many of the archaic laws seen stifling press freedom in the country.

Since Pakatan Harapan took over Putrajaya, said the report, Malaysia has jumped up 22 notches in the World Press

Freedom index and has been ranked 123 out of 180 countries listed in the index.

This is based on figures obtained in May of this year.

Nothing great you might say ? Or just a small achievement? Maybe.

But it is still a big deal considering how the media in Malaysia has never been free before and was always suppressed.

As the Malay Mail Online sees it, the Malaysian media could heave a breath of relief as the mainstream media no longer has to wait for instructions of “wahyu” from Putrajaya to conform with the political narratives of the day.

Content presentation and headlining are becoming more sensational too, in a bid to capture the attention of a new generation of readers.

In July 1961, the Umno leadership sent a party strongman from Terengganu to meet Utusan Melayu editor, Said Zahari, to demand Utusan submit to its four pronged “surrender terms.”

Utusan Melayu was previously an independent newspaper which Umno wanted to control. But Said – or Pak Said as he was fondly known – together with his journalists wanted to ensure Utusan Melayu continued to be an independent national newspaper, uncontrolled by a political party.

Pak Said, who I regard as one of the best journalist in the world, had always felt that only with a free policy could Utusan Melayu “ be the voice of the people, fighting for the interest of the people with sincerity integrity and courage.”

But Umno wanted Utusan Melayu to be different. It wanted Utusan Melayu to belong to Umno and to serve it only.

Hence on July 21 1961, Pak Said led his journalists and other workers of the newspaper to launch the famous “Mogok Utusan Melayu “or Utusan Melayu strike.

Sadly the strike failed and lasted 90 days . Umno had won.

Malaysia’s media landscape could have been different had the strike was successful.

But with Umno’s victory, Utusan Melayu was never the same again. True, the company grew to be Kumpulan Utusan Melayu and boasted an array of publications like Utusan Malaysia and Kosmo!

But it became subservient to Umno – serving the party’s needs and demands .

However, I see Umno’s victory in taking over control of Utusan as somehow paving the way for other political parties to wrest control of other newspapers.

Like MCA and The Star and MIC controlling the now defunct Tamil Nesan newspaper. Just to name two. Naturally there are others.

The nation’s media outlets would be free of political party control had the Utusan strike succeeded in stopping Umno back in 1961.

Many – including journalists – had expected Pakatan Harapan to intervene by sending “its own people” or editors perceived to be pro -Pakatan Harapan to the media organisations to introduce Pakatan Harapan friendly editorial policies .

But, all that did not happen.

The editors who were running the show left on their own accord or upon advise of their own board of directors.

The Pakatan Harapan government did not meddle into affairs of the media.

For one it would have involved them buying shares from their political rivals and proxies; something the Pakatan Harapan did not want to do, obviously.

The other factor that held it back, was its promise to be committed in ensuring a free press.

Paris based organisation Reporters without Borders acknowledged press freedom received a breath of fresh air in

Malaysia after Barisan Nasional lost the general election in May last year.

It noted journalists and media outlets that were previously blacklisted were today able to work without fear of harassment.

As the Malay Mail Online sees it, the Malaysian media could heave a breath of relief as the mainstream media no longer has to wait for instructions of “wahyu” from Putrajaya to conform with the political narratives of the day.

For online news portals like Malaysiakini and The Malaysian Insight, the positive developments unfortunately have “little” effect on them.

This is not to say they are not appreciative of the freedom they are given but even in the Barisan Nasional (BN) days of media shackling, these portals have always toed the line.

A long time media watcher agreed that news portals are continuing to report as if in the BN government era but “ they seem to be more for ‘sexy’ news of daily going-ons instead of incisive reporting”.

It’s the so called conventional media that is “enjoying” this new found freedom. At least they ought to be.

Under the Pakatan Harapan rule, the media in Malaysia is enjoying freedom as never before and that’s a fact.

After all, they now can report on both sides of the divide. But admittedly they tend to be “cautious” or impose self censorship with regards to so called negative stories about the current government.

At times, these portals even indulge in “apple polishing” Putrajaya as well
like in the “good old days of (the) BN”.

But as pointed out by a journalist friend – who do you blame for this ?

It is worth noting that the mainstream media, owned by parties linked to the opposition are still “at it” – serving the interests and pushing the agenda of their owners or should I say “political masters”?

Furthermore, they get away without being apprehended.

Whatever the agenda, mainstream media – according to the media watcher – is “struggling to stay afloat and trying to avoid the fate of Utusan.”

News publishers continue to lose readers who used to pay to read news in print but now prefer to access news for free online.

However, some online portals are already charging for content while some are contemplating putting up paywalls.

Obviously financing is a very big element but as Malaysiakini rightly puts it, “ independent media cannot survive without independent financing”.

Just how can the media get independent financing ?

While they grapple with that complex task, the media watcher advises media outlets “to buck up and connect with the people.”

If they fail to do so, they might eventually “go the Utusan way.”

That in a nutshell are the two big challenges faced by the media today in the midst of more pressfreedom .

Oh yes don’t forget, there’s always social media where everybody seems to be a journalist.

Not to mention fake news which unfortunately many love to swap for real news.

But I believe that real media will eventually prevail.

The article by Mohsin Abdullah will be published on Sin Chew Daily on Sep 28. Mohsin Abdullad is a Malaysian veteran journalist and now a freelancer who writes about this, that and everything else.