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What should Harapan do about the ‘mainstream’ media?

People sometimes imagine that just because they have access to so many newspapers, radio and TV channels, they will get an infinity of different opinions. Then they discover that things are just the opposite: the power of these loudspeakers only amplifies the opinion prevalent at a certain time, to the point where it covers any other opinion.”

― Amin Maalouf, ‘The First Century After Beatrice’

COMMENT | Jelutong MP RSN Rayer’s call to shut down TV3 claiming they are “inciters” is the kind of thinking that the people who voted for Pakatan Harapan should consider anathema. The fact that reportage here and elsewhere suggest a “mixed reaction” is indicative of the kind of trouble Malaysia may find itself in if Harapan is not constantly reminded not to turn into BN Redux.

So, Harapan, keep your grubby little political paws of the media, mainstream or otherwise. Immediately ditch all laws that restrict the media in this country. When the current grand poobah of Harapan now says the new government will clearly define what fake news is, when on the campaign trail he and the righteous from Harapan declared they would abolish the anti-fake news law, this is morally reprehensible.

The former Umno regime clearly defined what is fake news, which was apparently anything they disagreed with. The Umno regime also said that legitimate criticisms was welcome but most importantly, they claimed that the law was needed so certain people would not create chaos. Now we are told the same horse manure of why this law is needed and we are supposed to be okay with this? Pardon my language, but ‘f’ that. We have sufficient security laws for incitement and terrorism in this country.

In other words, it was not okay for the Umno regime to define what fake news is, but it is okay for this Harapan regime to define fake news? Not to mention, Harapan is breaking, in its first few days, a major campaign promise on an issue which is extremely important for the free flow of information in this country.

I do wonder though. Is the Harapan regime going to repeal the National Security Council Act or is this going to be another example of how Harapan "clearly defines" the role of the National Security Council?

My ideas of what the anti-fake law bill was really about can be read here – “In fact, I do not think that this has much to do with the press in the boarder sense. I think this proposed bill is aimed at the average citizen. To restrict the flow of information. To stop people from using social media to ferment and encourage dissent. People spread crap that they know is false all the time and when it comes to partisan politics, there is a whole lot of horse manure to spread around.”

The trust deficit

When promising a “holistic” press reform, PKR leader Nurul Izzah Anwar said – “We are talking about a new era where you celebrate truth and allow criticism, fair criticism, to construct the future government of the country to prosper”, which is a dangerous statement because (1) who decides the “truth”, (2) criticism is more often than not “unfair”, and (3) any kind of state-linked body which determines such is never free from the political and personal agendas of those who control the state.

Remember, when finance minister-designate Lim Guan Eng had to withdraw his “biting the hands that feeds you” remark against the Penang Institute and his clarification was worse if you ask, when he said “he had merely reminded the think-tank that they were allowed dissent against the state government publicly, as their principal funders, but only wanted loyalty in return.

“In other words, they cannot work secretively and surreptitiously with those who openly oppose and want to bring down the state government.”

Do you see where I am going with this? For decades, we had very little press freedom. For decades, the state intruded into our public spaces. For decades, the opposition - now the establishment - claimed that the press was out to get them. Opposition supporters claimed the same thing. Nobody trusted the mainstream media because they were controlled by the state or political parties and they never questioned the "alternative" media, and in some cases going so far as to claim that the alternative media was "bought" by BN if they had coverage critical of the then opposition.

Just because political operatives think they have a mandate from the people should not mean that they have a free hand to muzzle the press in their own way. There are enough laws in this country for libel, slander and security laws that restricts the freedom of speech and expression. These laws enable injured parties to seek relief from the judicial branch of government or to ensure that state secrets remain so, the law for this last part, especially in the public interest, should also be on the reform agenda.

Former opposition political operatives have sued state-owned propaganda organs and won. Lim Guan Eng is an example of this. Meanwhile, former establishment political operatives have sued online publications in the alternative media and won. There is a robust system of laws that ensure some kind of reparation for parties who believe that they have subjected to libel or slander.

Whether the state (Harapan) or political parties (former BN trifecta) owned ‘mainstream media’, this idea that Harapan should now control or punish former BN propaganda organs by instituting new management is morally reprehensible and tarnishes everything that Harapan could do for this country. By all means, change the management of state propaganda organs and you will know doubt have some partisans believing that these organs are now independent, but the truth is that they will never be independent.

Indeed, putting Harapan appointed individuals in state-controlled media will not make the media “independent”. Unless there are mechanisms, which are transparent and that encourages independence, only then would the state-owned media have some credibility, although I am pretty sure that partisan fervour trumps credibility. The fact that so far, state-owned institutions under Harapan-controlled territories have ranafoul of political operatives does not bode well for anyone who believes that the press could be “free” under a Harapan federal government.

Rafizi’s provocative statement

When former Pandan parliamentarian Rafizi Ramli made his statement that Mahathir bulldozed his way and bypassing PKR when naming the three ministerial posts, some people here and elsewhere claimed that Malaysiakini was engaging in fake news because the news reported did not mirror what Rafizi said on his blog posts.

Besides clearly not reading the article, which stated that Rafizi “had told Malaysiakini”, these claims of fake news as “anything we do not agree with” has caught on pretty fast with an online demographic eager to believe that a Harapan government needs all the breaks it can get.

The lesson is that Rafizi makes a provocative statement. An objective press should be interested in discovering the facts behind that statement. Did he really make that statement? Why did he make that statement? What is the agenda of the political operatives who disagree with Rafizi's statement? Do the facts back up their counter claims?

It is not the job of the press to make Harapan look competent to reassure a public hungry for change. That's the job of propagandists who work in state-controlled media.

Here’s the thing though, politicians use the press. The press use politicians. Information is always tainted. That is a fact. There is no “truth”. The press does not deal in truth. Ideally, they should deal in facts but since everyone has an agenda including the press, the best we can hope for is a market place of ideas and that people are free to choose their media, especially those not controlled by the state.

The Amin Maalouf quote that opens this piece is depressing because it is most probably true. The only thing that makes it a little palatable is that if the state does not control the press, there is an opportunity that contrarian perspectives like weeds grow from the wretched earth of political and media agendas. Some people may actually get something useful from these perspectives and reject the group-think that is partisan politics.

So again, keep your grubby little political paws off the press. Some people will continue being skeptical of any state-controlled media. Some people will attempt to find some weeds in the privately-owned mainstream and heading to ‘mainstream’ alternative press who speak truth to power.

For those of us who want this, Harapan should not make this endeavour harder than it already is.

S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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