It’s payback time for media chiefs. It used to be once every five years and once every three years, for a state election or general election, or party elections. Now, in the post-Mahathir era, everybody’s running for elections all the time, whether for party or for public office, and it’s payback time every day.
With parties in a state of flux from the departure of the old dictators, everyone’s constantly on guard, defending his own seat or challenging for someone’s else’s.
With the tide running out on another dictator, Taib Mahmud of Sarawak, and the Sarawak election results a crucial barometer of the political fortunes of Najib Razak, Muhyiddin Yassin, and the shadow master in Mahathir Mohamad, media chiefs, too, know they have to get on board and be a “team player” — while keeping lines always open to the other side, just in case.
It is no surprise that MalaysiaKini reported on Wednesday that the media have been told to play down the Sarawak people’s big response in towns and cities to Pakatan Rakyat rallies. That’s standard procedure with media owned and controlled by political parties.
MalaysiaKini quotes reliable sources as saying that all TV channels in Media Prima had been told not to air news of opposition ceramahs, which have been attracting audiences in the thousands. “Footage of the mega rallies cannot be aired at all even if the news is on other election matters,” an insider told Malaysiakini.
Media Prima, nominally a public-listed company, is an Umno-owned entity, with the party’s ownership hidden through proxies, as was the practice with the New Straits Times Press, highway builder United Engineers and highway concessionaire PLUS.
Media Prima owns all the main commercial TV stations: TV3, ntv7, 8TV and TV9, Of these, ntv7 and 8TV have a larger Chinese audience and were allowed a little more leeway than the others. But the leash has now been tightened.
The public response to Pakatan Rakyat rallies, mostly those of the DAP, reflects a shift in voter sentiment among Sarawak’s Chinese population, most of whom live in the cities.
This has resulted in a tightening of control over election news coverage in Chinese-language newspapers. “Although we did not get any instructions, we have to be careful in reporting the news about both sides. I don’t think we can give a 60:40 ratio of coverage to BN and the opposition, we have to change to 70:30,” said an editor from a local Chinese daily quoted by MalaysiaKini.
“In the last two or three days, our coverage has shrunk significantly,” said a DAP campaigner who is in charge of media relations. There is less space for news on the DAP campaigns, reports are cut down, and relegated to insignificance.
On Monday, the word “Pek Moh” (‘white hair’, referring to Taib Mahmud) and allegations of corruption were blurred out in photographs published by United Daily News. Four photographs of 11 showing campaign banners were blurred.
Tweet by MalaysiaKini reporter Regina Lee, covering the Sarawak elections
There has also been a de facto media blackout of the opposition in the Borneo Post, Utusan Sarawak and Utusan Borneo, which even before the campaign began had carried hardly any news of opposition parties. DAP campaigners have complained of cancelling press conferences because hardly anyone turned up, but with an election this hard fought, editors must make some hard decisions in assignments, scheduling and logistics.
They know who pays their salaries. That’s why Media Prima has taken over an entire floor in a leading hotel for an election control centre complete with mini studios and mini newsrooms headed by senior editors from KL.
It’s not just politicians’ necks on the line when elections draw near — the telltale is the reaction among reporters and editors in the newsrooms in KL on any election night as the results dribble in.
Rousing cheers and jeers erupt every now and then from shop-floor staff, to scowls and grins from some editors and some reporters. You don’t need to be a genius to know who’s cheering the underdog and who’s rooting for the reigning champ.
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