Wednesday, December 17, 2008

[The Malaysian Insider] Tighter control of the media when Najib becomes PM? Very likely

Article taken from The Malaysian Insider.

DEC 17 - One of the most noticeable changes when Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak becomes Prime Minister in March could be tighter control from Putrajaya on the media and on the decision-making process.

And if this happens, the loudest cheers for Najib will be from his Cabinet colleagues, senior Umno politicians and civil servants.

One constant during weekly Cabinet meetings since the March 8 general elections has been griping about the choice of articles and tone of coverage in several mainstream newspapers. Ironically, the sharpest criticisms have been reserved for papers owned by Barisan Nasional political parties.

The dominant view among Ministers and senior Umno politicians is that while Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi should be lauded for giving the media some space, they believe that the perimeters were not marked out clearly enough.

As a result, newspapers seem to be critical of any policies announced by the government; and more interested in focusing on crime and negative news, these critics allege.

Part of this griping is prompted by frustration of having to share space with a resurgent Opposition and part with their inability to set the agenda for news outlets even in their own stable. A government official, familiar with discussions on the media, told The Malaysian Insider: "This is a very critical time for the country. The global economy is in a really bad state and there will pain for Malaysians. The government needs everyone to be on the same team and push for the same cause.

"Instead we are seeing some newspapers being more interested in adopting a populist approach.''

A Cabinet Minister confirmed with the Malaysian Insider that there has been some discussion about a few newspapers, adding that there seems to be a trend to criticize government initiatives even without understanding it and explaining it to the public.

"Pak Lah may have meant well but we would like a less messy media scene. Some issues should be out of bounds and the media must respect the boundaries, '' he said, noting that combustible issues such as race relations and Malay rights must be tackled with caution and preferably not discussed openly.

If his views sound familiar, it is because they echo those of former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

While he and many others in Cabinet do not envisage a complete return to the days of Mahathirism, they believe there is merit in ruling Malaysia with a firmer and stronger hand. And with a cache of fear.

The Minister pointed out that though editors of mainstream newspapers did not receive daily calls from Dr Mahathir, they understood clearly the parameters and were afraid to test the limits.

It was the same with decision-making. Only after a policy had been thrashed out by the Cabinet, would an announcement be made, usually by Dr Mahathir himself or the Minister concerned.

As part of the move to empower politicians and civil servants, Abdullah employed a more laissez faire approach to policy-making and dissemination of information.

The result: some confusion and flip-flops.

The most recent case which got under the skin of some Ministers was the rule about seat belts. Road Safety Department director-general Datuk Suret Singh announced that from January 2009, rear seat passengers will have to belt up.

Subsequently, there were questions whether the fourth passenger in the rear seat would only have to comply with the rule.

The authorities clarified that the fourth passenger would not have to wear a seat belt but the driver of the car could be summoned for overloading.

This statement unleashed a gush of criticism and resulted in Suret having to clarify that authorities would not enforce the overloading rule.

Episodes such as this create the impression that government policies are being cobbled together on the run and without much deliberation.

Though there were similar criticisms raised during the Mahathir years, the consensus is that with one man having a strong say and imprint on policies and tighter control on the dissemination of information , there could be fewer embarrassing about turns on policy.

No comments: