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Covering the elections fairly

I WAS struck last week by theSun’s reporting of the Pakatan Rakyat (PR)’s convention and newly unveiled manifesto. The 26 Feb 2013 coverage featured a full page on the PR convention and another colour page with a summary of the manifesto’s highlights. The articles were generally neutral and informative, and gave a good overview of what the PR was promising if it were to take federal power at the next general election. Reports the next day focused on analysts and non-governmental organisations’ critical reactions to the manifesto.

This was quite different from The Star’s coverage. Its article citing Barisan Nasional (BN) leaders rubbishing the manifesto was longer than the one on what the manifesto was actually about. New Straits Times was full of one-sided name-calling quotes: the manifesto was described as “empty promises”, “full of lies”, “a ploy to fool the people” and something that would “ruin the economy”. And Utusan Malaysia couldn’t help itself but to blur the lines between commentary and the news. In Pakatan kitar semula manifesto, the paper declared that the PR was once again making promises without proving they could implement them, before listing the manifesto’s proposals.

Reading reports on the PR manifesto foreshadows what media coverage will be like during the 13th General Election (GE13). theSun’s PR manifesto coverage demonstrates that fair and informative reporting is possible, even in Malaysia’s politically controlled media climate. This then made me think – what other elements would I would wish for in the media’s coverage of the looming polls?
Equal and fair

It would be really refreshing to see our traditional media giving equal space and air time to all candidates, instead of the usual barrage of BN-friendly articles. The role of the media is to equip voters with as much knowledge as possible so that citizens can make informed decisions at the polls in the interest of what’s best for our democracy.

The media can do that by ensuring all candidates and political parties during the election have equal opportunity and space to present their credentials and promises to the rakyat. At the same time, both the BN and PR’s achievements and missteps should be highlighted. If the BN government has been working as hard as Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak says, BN leaders should relish the chance at being compared to and outshining their PR counterparts, instead of dominating the news cycles with self-congratulatory reports. After all, if there’s no apparent competition to show that the BN is better, then why should anybody be convinced that the BN is superior to the PR?

A fair media would also put opposition leaders on the front pages from time to time, instead of the usual suspects of Najib and his Cabinet members. Being constantly bombarded by flattering images of Najib could lead some to conclude that our prime minister has an unhealthy preoccupation with favourable photo opportunities. This perception is further strengthened when stories emerge of photographs being doctored to depict him surrounded by large crowds. How about putting a photograph of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and his supporters on the front page, for a change? He is, after all, the opposition leader, a recognised parliamentary position, and not an enemy of the state as the traditional media, in particular Utusan, is so keen to portray him as.

And how about BN-controlled newspapers being a little self-critical? Along with its articles vilifying the DAP, The Star could, for instance, ask questions about why Chinese Malaysians appear to have abandoned the MCA. And alongside questioning PAS’s Islamic credentials, Utusan could explore whether it’s time for Umno to modify its race-based claim for “ketuanan Melayu”. If the press could demonstrate that they are willing to be equally critical of all parties vying for power, it would be so much easier for citizens to trust that there is no hidden agenda behind a newspaper’s criticisms of a politician or party. It would also demonstrate that the press has the public’s interest at heart, and was not being driven by partisan self-interest.

Public interest and credibility

One may ask, why would the BN-controlled media portray the BN negatively and give more space to the BN’s opponents? For one, a paper may hold certain political views, but that should be reserved for its commentary section. It should not be withholding news detrimental to the party it supports, or suppressing its opponents’ political views and promises, as that would mean abdicating its primary role to serve the public.

Then there’s the question of credibility. Today’s voters no longer overlook or tolerate uninformed bias and inaccurate reporting because the truth is bound to leak out through social media. Any media, whether traditional or online, that continues to unashamedly demonstrate either is pawning off its credibility. If people are only reading a newspaper “to see where the sales are” or “for the classifieds” or “to see what the government is thinking”, then that paper has lost its most valuable currency.

Beppe Grillo
In fact, if the media, whether print or online, cannot produce fair, informed, honest and well-argued coverage, it risks being sidelined altogether. Take, for example, Beppe Grillo, an Italian comedian-blogger, who led a brand new party in Italy’s recently concluded general election. His party astoundingly won more than 25% of the vote. He completely shunned the traditional media, and campaigned only through social media and holding large rallies. Grillo’s success, which has created problems of its own for Italy’s government, occurred in an environment where only 11% of the public trust the press [1].

The Malaysian public’s trust may not have sunk to such dismal levels. But if our media do not stop adulating and adoring those in power and start holding power accountable, it won’t be too long before we reach the same levels.

Why care?

Fair coverage is but one of the many issues a media outfit needs to bear in mind during elections. It also needs to examine the key campaign issues, and ask insightful questions on whether a party is capable of fulfilling their promises, and analyse whether those pledges will benefit the people. It needs to closely follow the electoral process, and expose incompetency, corruption and fraud. This needs to be done by both traditional and online media outfits.

Why should we care whether or not the traditional media is able to fulfil this role? Well, for one, a large number of people still read the newspapers. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, Utusan’s circulation last year was over 180,000 a day; New Straits Times over 100,000; and The Star close to 300,000. And, more importantly, a fair and independent press, both print and online, is vital for any functioning democracy.

What’s in store for us then this general election? Judging from what we’re seeing now in the traditional media, things will get worse before they ever get better. It’s up to us then to read the news critically and to keep demanding that our media adhere to higher standards. There’s no running away from it if we want Malaysia to be a world-class democracy. After all, it’s not for no reason that the media is called the fourth estate.

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