A free press – or a two-party press system?
By Gobind Rudra
Everyone loves the idea of a free press, that’s practically a given. The point really is: what kind of a free press will the politicians allow us to have?
We know the Barisan Nasional’s idea of a free press: it’s the system already in place, a system mostly owned or controlled by the Barisan Nasional, free to report the thoughts of Barisan Nasional leaders; a free press kept in check by press control laws and licensing rules that allow the Barisan Nasional to decide who can be a publisher or broadcaster.
What is Pakatan Rakyat’s answer to that? Anwar Ibrahim made an emphatic declaration on this at the March 8 ceramah in Penang:
Ada orang kata Ban TV3! NO! Kita FREE media. . .YES! Kita bagi FULL FREEDOM – siapa nak bawa television, radio, surat khabar. . . FIRST DAY of the new Pakatan Rakyat government. . .(cheers, applause). Dan kita ada confidence. . .kita boleh compete dengan these racist media organs. . . Kerana. Orang. Nak. Media. Yang. Bebas. Dan bukan: media yang memperlembukan rakyat (cheers, applause). » What did Anwar really say? » Video: Anwar on free media
Stirring stuff, the kind people have been longing to hear.
But two questions remain: is he truly promising full freedom, or will Pakatan Rakyat, in practice, deliver something a little short?
Based on what he said, we can infer:
- No punitive action — that means no action to close down TV3 (and by extension, Media Prima and Utusan groups, and all the rest), and they stay in business.
- Full freedom to publish — possibly means no licences needed to publish a newspaper or open a broadcasting station.
- But he also asserted a freedom to compete — and that’s the crux of it. Kita boleh compete dengan these racist media organs he said. Kita boleh compete. . .meaning who, exactly?
The existing press houses are already a Barisan Nasional bloc. With freedom to publish, new people will rush in to open newspapers and broadcasting stations. Obviously, Anwar expects that these new people will be his kind of people — he did say Kita boleh compete.
So the upshot is that we can expect two kinds of privately-owned media: BN-owned private media and Pakatan-allied private media.
Anwar did not deal with the question of the public media: Radio and Television Malaysia; Suara Malaysia; Film Negara; Information Department. Will they now, under a Pakatan Rakyat government, switch sides and become Pakatan-controlled media, just as they have been Barisan-controlled media all these decades?
Going by what Anwar said, it appears possible that we will end up not just with a two-party system in politics, but also a two-party system in media.
That’s not what the country needs, not what the country deserves. Formalising today’s political fish-market in the form of two groups of media houses screaming at each other does not amount to even a half-step towards a free press.
Malaysians deserve a free press that is independent of political parties and independent of business proxies for political parties.
Malaysians deserve a free press that can give voice to their unspoken concerns, not a sponsored press that gives space and time to pander to the yammering and posturing of politicians, their flunkies, and their business patrons.
Give us a free press. And if you can’t — or won’t — then stop pretending that you care about the Fourth Estate’s role in a democracy.
Gobind Rudra is a former newspaper editor