MP SPEAKS Last week, red-shirt vigilante members protested twice outside the offices of leading independent news voice Malaysiakini, only to be followed by a raid and seizure of their computers by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC).
All this transpired in quick succession of an allegation, later confirmed by Malaysiakini’s leadership, that the group had indeed received grant funding from the Open Society Foundation (OSF), founded by philanthropist George Soros. The conduct by the red-shirt protesters and the government reflects a sadly hypocritical state of affairs in today’s Malaysia.
On one hand, Malaysiakini is subjected to such heavy-handed treatment for receiving a grant amounting to less than 10 percent of its total funds, when the prime minister is cleared of corruption charges despite pocketing RM2.6 billion into his personal coffers.
While Malaysiakini is attacked for being a mere grant recipient, the red-shirt protesters remain tight-lipped towards the fact that the bulk of Malaysia’s media outfits are owned and therefore subordinate to our ruling party, BN, and their never-ending economic and political follies.
With foreign funding comes the need for accountability
Upon revelations of linkages to the OSF, Malaysiakini had no qualms disclosing that the media outfit is indeed a beneficiary of Soros’ philanthropic arm. In fact, Malaysiakini’s editor-in-chief Steven Gan, editors RK Anand and Jimadie Shah Othman held a meeting with red shirt protesters to dispel any confusion pertaining to foreign funding.
According respect to the public and addressing their concerns is befitting of an entity performing a public service. Such is the case for the media which performs public broadcasting; such is also the case for the prime minister who oversees public law and order.
Malaysiakini’s forthcoming disclosures are in stark contrast with Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak’s course of action following the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) exposé that our preeminent leader had indeed received a personal donation of RM2.6 billion from Saudi Arabia.
First, Najib denied that he had ever received money for personal gain. Then, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir asserted that it was an “investment in Malaysia”, before months later saying that it was a “genuine donation with nothing expected in return.”
Najib himself has remained reticent. Up till now, how Najib spent Saudi Arabia’s excessively magnanimous donations, of which US$620 million was returned, remains undisclosed. More than a year has gone by, but Malaysians remain beguiled as to why the money was donated and how the money was spent. Indeed, with a clean conscience, there is nothing to fear and nothing to hide.
Balancing funding needs with independence
Jamal Yunos alleges Malaysiakini to be a puppet of George Soros, thereby having the vast potential to distort electoral results. But Malaysiakini’s source of funding is manifold - ranging from grant agencies that support free and independent press, to subscription fees and advertising revenues. Malaysiakini has emphasised its prerogative to maintain diversity in funding sources, ensuring that any one grant that it benefits from never exceeds 10 percent of its total funding.
This is what enables Malaysiakini to keep faithful to the daily grind of journalism, while preserving its autonomy - strong and unyielding. If Malaysiakini is alleged to deceive the electorate, shouldn’t even graver accusations be laid against our traditional media outlets?
In an ironic admission of media bias during World Press Freedom Day last year, Utusan Malaysia conceded that Umno owns half of the media outfit’s shares. Despite being among the nation’s most widely circulated newspapers, and the worst in facing defamation suits - the paper continues to wield its Umno slant to the detriment of journalistic integrity.
Extend our scrutiny beyond Utusan and one will realise that the ruling party’s influence transcends scores of newspapers, TV stations and radio channels:
- State-owned Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM) owns TV1, TV2, TVi and manages 35 radio stations;
- Umno-owned Media Prima has equity stake in TV3, NTV7, 8TV, TV9, New Straits Times, Berita Harian, Harian Metro, FlyFM, HotFM and OneFM;
- Umno holds 49.77 percent of equity in Utusan Melayu (Malaysia) Berhad, which owns Utusan Malaysia, Kosmo! and Mingguan Malaysia;
- MCA has a 42.46 percent shareholding of Star Media Group, which owns The Star, and four radio stations - RED FM, 988, SuriaFM and Capital FM.
In its own proud words, Media Prima has the “complete repertoire of media-related businesses”, thereby shaping the discourse and moulding the perceptions of the Malaysian society. If this is not media bias skewing electoral perceptions at near-insurmountable scale, what is?
The vast distinction between minority grants and majority ownership
Although BN financially controls the bulk of Malaysia’s media sphere, Malaysiakini is singled out for being a grant recipient. First of all, Malaysiakini seeks only grants from agencies whose missions are compatible with theirs of independent journalism, therefore remaining autonomous and uncompromised.
Secondly, neither Soros, nor any of his affiliated bodies owns Malaysiakini. This is in stark contrast to BN-affiliated media outlets, who owe their existence to the ruling party and would ultimately, serve the latter’s preferences.
OSF’s grant is simply one of Malaysiakini’s many funding streams to ensure that its voice remains diverse, well-informed and independent. Celebrating its 17th anniversary this year, Malaysiakini’s revenue model has proven sustainable through grants, subscriptions and advertising. If nothing else, Malaysiakini represents a successful model for independent media outlets worldwide.
Ironically, while Malaysiakini maintains its moral high-ground of journalistic integrity, our government - when accorded the same rigour in scrutiny - appears despotic and coercive. In fact, Malaysiakini is not the only casualty of late; respected polling centre Merdeka Centre too was brought in for police questioning for alleged links to Soros, twice.
When Malaysiakini and Merdeka Centre were confronted, they responded with openness, responsiveness and civility. Can the same be said for the BN government, whose wholly-owned entity 1MDB is under investigation in countries worldwide? At Parliament, our elected representatives are muzzled from debating matters related to 1MDB. Parliamentarians who do not toe the line face the risk of sedition charges.
Evidently, the same spirit of democracy that Malaysiakini has exemplified does not hold true for the incumbent government. There is a very clear line between receiving funds for operational needs and welcoming ‘donations’ that facilitates kleptocracy.
Victimising the former while emboldening the latter is hypocrisy at minimum, and destructive to the nation, at worst.
NURUL IZZAH ANWAR is the MP for Lembah Pantai and a vice-president of PKR.