During the 2013 Malaysian election campaign and in the days immediately afterwards, a team of communications experts at The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus (UNMC) kept a close eye on the performance of the country’s press. Their aim was to encourage fair coverage of this crucial election campaign and encourage better performance in providing access to information and a platform for diverse views and voices.
The ‘Watching the Watchdog’: Media Monitoring the 13th General Election’ project released five preliminary and two comprehensive final reports, as well as 28 individual publication reports. The team found that Malaysian citizens relying on the state news wire, the English and Bahasa Malaysia language print newspapers, as well as television news in all three major languages, did not receive fair and balanced information. The only Malaysian media in the study which were found to provide relatively balanced political information were the online news portals and Mandarin-language print newspapers.
Dr Tessa Houghton and Professor Zaharom Nain, from the Centre for the Study of Communications and Culture, collaborated with the Malaysian Centre for Independent Journalism on the project: ‘Watching the Watchdog’. They put together a team of around 70 research assistants or ‘coders’ who gathered data from the most popular and influential media across Malaysia. The project is part of a larger collaborative project with the National Institute for Electoral Integrity (NIEI) and Merdeka Centre entitled ‘Creating a Robust and Transparent Electoral Process in Malaysia.’
Lead analyst Dr Houghton, who had conducted media monitoring of the New Zealand elections in 2008 and helped to design the quantitative methodology for the project, said: “This widespread failure to conform to one of, if not the most basic tenet of professional journalism — the provision of objective or balanced information — amounts to a failure within the Malaysian media system as a whole. The effectiveness of a democratic system is fundamentally dependant on the provision of accurate and balanced information to the electorate — and the media are key to this process. Where there is insufficient transparency, there is the real risk that electoral decision making is based on inadequate information.”
Professor Nain said: “Political party ownership and control of the mainstream Malaysian media, primarily by parties in the ruling coalition, has contributed significantly to this state of affairs, together with the lack of critical media education amongst state universities in Malaysia, which support conformity rather than critical thinking. There is very little questioning going on, instead media studies here is made up of more vocational-type training.
“The ‘why’ question is hardly raised, this is what has been happening in universities since the 90s and I believe this is still happening now.”Major test for ruling coalition
Malaysia is now one of South-East Asia’s most vibrant economies and as a result of this urbanisation and a population increasingly made up of young voters, the recent general election was one of the closest since independence from Britain 56 years ago.
The 2013 general election was a major test for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s ruling Barisan Nasional coalition — made up of the United Malays National Organisation, the Malaysian Chinese Association, the Malaysian Indian Congress and a number of smaller parties. It has played a dominant role in Malaysian politics since independence in 1957. Datuk Seri Najib, a University of Nottingham alumnus, who was sworn in as Prime Minister four years ago has kept his position as Prime Minister following the election and the nominations made in preparation for the upcoming UMNO General Assembly, but faces a difficult task in winning back the Malaysian popular vote
The narrow win for the Barisan Nasional has established the opposition People’s Alliance (Pakatan Rakyat) — a coalition of three parties — as a real and viable alternative government for Malaysia. The opposition coalition first gained headway against the Barisan Nasional in the 2008 General Election, but continues to suffer from low support amongst Barisan Nasional’s strategically important rural votebanks.
Opposition leader, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who once served as deputy prime minister under the Barisan Nasional but fell out with the former Prime Minister in 1998, is seen as one of the great survivors of Malaysian politics. Since the election, Anwar and other opposition figures, as well as members of Bersih, the independent movement for free and fair electoral reform, have accused the government of electoral fraud. The government maintains that it won the election in a free and fair manner.All aspects of media coverage scrutinised
The academic ‘watch-dogs’ gauged the media’s treatment of political figures and parties as well as key issues in a general election that has marked a major paradigm shift in the country’s political landscape, with the incumbent Barisan Nasional government maintaining control of the nation, but losing the popular vote to the opposition coalition, Pakatan Raykat.
The media monitoring encompassed news articles and editorials in print, online and television, in the main three languages of Malay, English, and Mandarin-Chinese. It included public-funded media such as Bernama Online and RTM news as well as privately owned outlets. The monitoring exercise began on 7 April and ended two days after polling day.
Dr Houghton said: “A robust and independent media is crucial to any functioning democracy. Our research suggests that there continues to be a real need for civil society to maintain the momentum for change in this area.”
The final reports have been released via a public forum at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and as a consequence the authors were asked to present their research at the Bersih People’s Tribunal. Their release has included recommendations to improve coverage to media organisations, as well as suggestions to the Election Commission.
More details and media coverage of the research can be found at the Centre for the Study of Communications and Culture
website . This link also provides access to all the public reports.
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