Electoral Reform a Farce Without Free And Fair Media Coverage

31 December 2011

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By Kim Quek

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s call for free and fair media coverage for the coming election strikes at the core of the fundamental flaws that have made Malaysian elections a mockery of democracy.

This is because electoral democracy is a game of perception.  And perception is shaped by the media.  

Hence, an electoral contest with one contestant monopolizing the media to the exclusion of his adversary is akin to a debating competition where one debater is using a microphone to speak to the audience while the other is using none.

And the Malaysian media is notorious for its biased reporting, as the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) has never been shy in exploiting to the fullest, its iron-grip on the entire spectrum of the local mass media (save the Internet) to advance its political fortune.
Such complete control is made possible through a combination of repressive legislations and media ownership, as the BN government possesses the arbitrary power to grant or terminate any media license (printed and electronic) without legal redress, and all such media are owned either by BN’s component parties or by their allies.

And public TV and radio, which are legally bound to be politically neutral, have long been corrupted by BN to serve its parochial political interests – a practice that has emphatically breached our Constitution.

GOLIATH vs DAVID MEDIA WAR

With such unlimited media power at the exclusive disposal of a ruling power as ruthless as BN, one can imagine what kind of scenario will be seen at a Malaysian national election. It will not be a democratic election for sure.  More likely, it will look like giant Goliath fighting little David,  as far media war is concerned.  And yet, it is the media that influence the mind, and the mind that influences the vote.

Granted that advancement in Internet has somewhat mitigated the unleveled playing field, but its current stage of usage in Malaysia is nowhere near the kind of level that would enable the opposition to meaningfully counter BN’s vicious propaganda perpetrated through the main stream media.  TV, radio and newspaper are still the regular information feeders depended upon by overwhelming majority of Malaysians, particularly those in the non-urban areas.

And the opposition’s serious handicap in information dissemination is further critically compounded by the 8 to 10 day campaign period (though allowable period is 60 days), a practice perpetrated in recent decades by an obviously manipulated Election Commission (EC) to favour BN.  With such a ridiculously short campaign period, it is impossible for the opposition to carry its message – not   to mention countering BN’s false propaganda – to the far flung territories that include the hinterlands across the South China Seas.

More than any other factor, BN’s monopolistic abuse and exploitation of the mass media, coupled with the indecently brief campaign period, has been accountable for BN’s unfailing victory in every general election in the past.  

BN NO MATCH FOR PAKATAN IN FAIR CONTEST

Surveying the current scenario ahead of the election, what we see is a fundamentally altered political landscape.  On one side of the battlefield, is an aged and decadent coalition with antiquated policy, kept in power by dint of its grip on the state machinery. On the other, a newly emerged coalition brimming with ideas to rejuvenate the nation, with proven record of  sound governance in its state governments.

Under such circumstances, it is fair to say that BN should be no match for Pakatan Rakyat in a free and fair contest, more so in the current trend of dissent against decadent and aged power that has swept across the world including our region.

But of course, we have never had a free and fair contest, and in fact, our unleveled playing field has gone from bad to worse.  It is in the realization that we may once again be cheated of a fair choice of government that hitherto docile voters have risen strongly to brave brutal crackdown to demand fair election in the Bersih 2.0 rally.
It is not difficult to surmise that, given the present extreme lop-sidedness of Malaysian election, whether the people will be given a fair choice in the coming poll hinges on how effective the current attempt at electoral reform will be towards rectifying the current flaws.

The recent focus by the parliamentary select committee (PFC) and EC on introducing indelible ink and advance voting in lieu of postal voting is of course a welcome improvement.  But we must be cautious not to allow such focus to blur our priorities, top among which is the mandatory practice of free and fair and non-discriminatory media coverage for all contestants. And of course, the current unconstitutional abuse of public media (TV, radio, news agency etc) to disseminate biased information in favour of BN has to cease forthwith.

FREE MEDIA NON-NEGOTIABLE

This is something that BN can do right away without waiting for new legislation or alteration of election regulation.  All that is needed is the political will and commitment to honour the letter and spirit of our Constitution.

Knowing the critical importance of free media to democratic election, it should be made a non-negotiable issue.

I have no doubt that Bersih 2.0, political parties and all who cherish democracy and the Constitution will stand very firm to demand that BN gives its solemn pledge to restore free and fair media coverage as pre-requisite to the return to democratic election.

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