Josh Hong: Najib’s clanging cymbals on media freedom

Soon after Abdullah Ahmad Badawi assumed the prime ministership, a TV producer received a text message from the PM’s office: “Josh Hong is pro-Opposition, Liew Chin Tong a member of the DAP. So why did you choose them for your talk show?”

This was followed by another message assuring that “you’ll be fine so long as their comments are based on facts”.

Both messages came from a Chinese aide to the then prime minister. As far as I know, this particular producer never received any query on his selections of panelists again, and he is still quick to acknowledge Abdullah’s (left) laisser faire attitude towards the media.

On succeeding Abdullah, Najib Abdul Razak pledged to nurture “respectful and fair dialogue” on Malaysia’s future through a “vibrant, free and informed media”, and urged journalists to report responsibly “without fear of consequences” in order to “hold the government accountable”.

One year on, one easily collapses in laughter (or tears) at hearing the same vow coming from the very mouth of the prime minister, for the mainstream media of today know nothing but pandering to the whims of the powers-that-be.

Chinese press subservient

I am not just talking about the Malay and English media, but the Chinese ones as well. The deterioration of the Chinese press – predominantly Sin Chew Daily – was best evidenced by the series of articles that praised Najib to the skies at the latter’s ascension to the highest political office last year.

In addition, the daily with the biggest Chinese readership traditionally lends tacit support to the incumbent president of the MCA, while Lim Guan Eng has also been given more positive coverage – including a column – since his election as Penang’s chief minister.

In other words, back the “right horse” or risk losing out.

To be fair, the subservience of the Chinese press did not begin with Umno leaders, but with Ong Ka Ting, a former MCA president. After being appointed a deputy Home Minister in the 1990s, Ong took a personal interest in the Chinese press, and was popularly dubbed “the ultimate editor-in-chief”.

He himself admitted recently in a TV interview – aired on the eve of the MCA’s party election last month – that he did from time to time call certain editors and cautioned them not to overstep the boundaries on sensitive issues. He was, however, adamant that he only conveyed the message as a “friendly reminder”, not a threat.

Sin Chew, in particular, consciously cultivated close ties with Ong and Ling Liong Sik, another political has-been, and the effort paid off when the MCA decided in 2001 to buy over Nanyang Press Holdings, which produced the relatively neutral and more critical Nanyang Siang Pau and the China Press.

The deal was met with ferocious backlash from the Chinese community, but Sin Chew ended up the winner when Nanyang’s circulation fell dramatically as a result of public boycott.

Control over the media

Hence, while Umno under Mahathir Mohamad exercised extremely tight control over the Malay and the English media, the Chinese vernacular press was comparatively more free until the MCA put a halt to it.

On Abdullah’s watch, the Chinese media, especially TV and radio, regained their autonomy. This was manifested in a good number of TV talk shows and radio programmes that commented rather audaciously on politics and current affairs.

Victims were sometimes found along the path, such as a couple of radio chat shows that were ordered to change the tune after the MCA leadership could tolerate it no more. But by and large, it was a breath of fresh air for many.

All this took a drastic turn after Najib took over. The prime minister had tried very hard to give the impression that a “world-class” media was on his agenda, but what he did during the just-concluded Hulu Selangor by-election utterly betrayed him. Throughout the campaign, Zaid Ibrahim (right), the PKR candidate, had to fight against wolf-pack attacks by the mainstream media, not to mention the amount of innuendos and character assassinations.

When tens of thousands of people turned up for Pakatan Rakyat’s final rally before polling day, all the major dailies ignored it altogether. Najib’s failure to demonstrate any ideological moorings was too conspicuous, as he concentrated his voluminous personal attacks against Pakatan leaders.

There was no substantive articulation of the New Economic Model, a hollow slogan that Najib seeks profusely to present as an idea, and serious elaboration on reform policies was lacking. He certainly is not interested in a debate with anyone as to whether his government will continue to featherbed the rich while income disparities widen.

Worse, Najib had to resort to Mahathir to revive his political fortunes, hoping that the appearance of the racist-minded veteran would at least help consolidate the Malay vote now that the Chinese constituency was a lost cause in Hulu Selangor.

Najib is clearly ideologically vacuous, which is why he badly needs every spin-doctor that he can get to apple-polish his image. He has never truly and earnestly been in search of a “world-class” media, or else he would have done what the British have been doing: fair coverage for all the contenders for power.

When Joshua Wong resigned in protest over political interference from the PM’s Office, even citing Rosmah Mansor’s role in it, it was precisely a scenario that I had long expected, and I do echo his concerns.

Credit where it’s due

Still, one must give credit where it is due. The team that produces the Editor’s Time, a Mandarin talk show on ntv7, has been working very hard to ensure maximal dissemination of information to viewers, albeit under ever closer scrutiny by the state. Tan Boon Kooi, the producer, while far from perfect, has been doing his utmost to maintain impartiality.

If anything, the team is squeezed between political forces and a more demanding Chinese audience, a dilemma that deserves our sympathy to some extent. Let’s hope they will stand their ground from now on.

That is a far cry from the case of Sin Chew, which has developed a symbiotic relationship with the ruling coalition over the years. Early last year, the top management went barmy on knowing that Najib was going to pay them a visit, and instructed members of their staff to put Najib’s images as their computer screensavers!

Now the state-owned RTM has appointed a Chinese officer to oversee the production of Galeri Mandarin Nasional, a Mandarin series. This is yet another tribute of the Najib (left) administration to Mahathir’s high-handedness.

Will the prime minister succeed in enslaving the people’s minds? Perhaps those senior media workers and journalists who attended the very event at which Najib promised us a “vibrant, free and informed media” can shed some light. As for now, one can look forward to more spin-doctoring, manipulation and mendacity as the next general election approaches.

JOSH HONG studied politics at London Metropolitan University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. A keen watcher of domestic and international politics, he longs for a day when Malaysians will learn and master the art of self-mockery, and enjoy life to the full in spite of politicians.

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