Saturday, May 02, 2009

[The Malaysian Insider] Umno reins in its media

Article taken from The Malaysian Insider.

KUALA LUMPUR, May 2 — Headlines are being scrutinised. Captions are being commented on. The space for alternative views is shrinking.

Instructions are flowing from Putrajaya, not necessarily from the Prime Minister but from individuals who claim they are empowered to speak on his behalf.

The nett result: the mood in newsrooms across the country has become more cautious and editors more wary of pushing the envelope since Datuk Seri Najib Razak became the chief executive of Malaysia.

And the sentiment in the profession is that the controls are going to get tighter now that Najib has installed Datuk Johan Jaafar as the head of the Media Prima empire and has endorsed the return of Datuk Ahmad A. Talib as the editorial adviser to the New Straits Times Press stable of newspapers.

Both individuals were senior members of the media establishment during the Mahathir era, a period when the Opposition had to be content with footnote coverage and the public was served with daily dose of government speak.

Johan was the top editor at Utusan Malaysia while Ahmad rose to become the group editor of the New Straits Times.

Skewed coverage of the Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim abuse of power and sodomy trials in the mainstream media more than any other news event came to signify all that was wrong with the press during the Mahathir years. The one-sidedness led to the birth of websites and the Internet as a powerful platform for alternative views in Malaysia.

Ten years after the Anwar trials, the power of the Internet was felt. Pakatan Rakyat and its band of supporters used blogs and other alternative media platforms to convince Malaysians that the time for change had come.

After losing its two-thirds majority in Parliament and five states to the Opposition, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was forced to say that the Barisan Nasional "certainly lost the Internet war," and had made "a serious misjudgment" by relying solely on government-controlled newspapers and television.

During the Abdullah years, the media were given more space to criticise government policies and debate contentious issues. But Umno members felt that this policy was misguided because it only opened the ruling party and some of their politicians and institutions to ridicule.

Many Umno members yearned for a return to the Mahathir days when the mainstream media displayed their allegiance to BN and antipathy to the Opposition openly.

When it became clear that Abdullah could no longer remain as Umno president and PM, there were fears that Najib would bring about a tighter control of the media.

Publicly, the PM has said he wants to build a free press that is transparent, accountable and caters to the needs of all Malaysians regardless of their race.

To “build a democracy (that is) responsive to the needs of the people”, Malaysia needs a media that will “report what they see, without fear of consequence”, Najib said recently.

But there have been mixed signals, with a steady flow of instructions to editors from Najib’s aides and those who claim they are speaking on his behalf.

Reporters have been asked to stop poking around and digging up dirt on the political infighting in Terengganu and play down adverse comments on 1 Malaysia.

Ahmad left the NST in 2004 and was part of senior management which presided over the steepest drop in the newspaper’s circulation. He worked with Maxis for several years before becoming a media strategist and blogger. He was part of Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s inner circle.

Now, he has been given the task of bringing some order at the NST.

The Malaysian Insider understands that there has been some concern over the editorial stance of the newspapers under the stable.

The NSTP board of directors is expected to meet soon to confirm Ahmad’s position as the editorial adviser. Group-editor-in chief Datuk Hishammuddin Aun, a newspaperman who was elevated during Abdullah’s reign, is expected to report to him.

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