The media plays an important role in any democracy, so all eyes will be on it as Malaysia goes to the polls
Mainstream media outlets leveraging off their vast resources, alternative media prepping for traffic spikes and possible attacks
AS far back as the 17th century, the role of the press in the dissemination of information and in shaping public opinion, in addition to serving as a forum for discussion and discourse, was recognized when the British statesmen, political theorist and philosopher Edmund Burke labeled it the ‘Fourth Estate.’
In a democracy, that role is amplified. In a report titled The Role of Media in Democracy: A Strategic Approach, the US Agency for International Development’s Center for Democracy and Governance notes that “Access to information is essential to the health of democracy for at least two reasons.
“First, it ensures that citizens make responsible, informed choices rather than acting out of ignorance or misinformation. Second, information serves a ‘checking function’ by ensuring that elected representatives uphold their oaths of office and carry out the wishes of those who elected them,” it says in the report that can be downloaded here.
Malaysia is a democracy … nominally, at least. A democracy is not just defined as the freedom to go to the ballot boxes once every four to five years to vote in a government. It also requires strong and independent public institutions, proper separation of powers, and mass media that is free to perform its duties without fear or favour.
In almost these areas, Malaysia fares poorly. While freedom of expression is enshrined in Article 10 of the Federal Constitution, a slew of media-related and other laws have threatened and continue to undermine this basic constitutional right -- among them the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the Broadcasting Act of 1988 and the Official Secrets Act.
The traditional print and broadcast media are the most adversely affected, with the online media escaping most, but not all, restrictions, thanks to a “no Internet censorship” guarantee made by the Malaysian Government in the late 1990s.
The falling circulation of newspapers and the sharp increases in Internet penetration have led to a shift in media consumption. While the mainstream media still has the lion’s share in the rural heartlands, the Internet has become the channel of choice for the middle-class and especially young urbanites.
Hardliners in the ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional, are still struggling against this shifting media landscape, which has led to the Government tightening its control over the mainstream media, every once in a while coming up with legislation, such as last year’s Section 114A amendment to the Evidence Act, to better stifle freedom of expression on the Internet.
In an annual study conducted by US-based Freedom House, Malaysia’s Internet freedom ranking slipped two notches and was described as being in danger of further decline thanks to the amendment above, cyber-attacks against prominent news websites and opposition-linked sites, as well as the arrest of bloggers.
In terms of press freedom specifically, Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index saw Malaysia plunging 23 places to No 145 out of 179 countries surveyed, its lowest-ever position “because access to information is becoming more and more limited.”
Watch the watchdogs
As the country prepares to vote in a new government in the 13th General Election (GE13), the role of the media has come into sharper relief, which is why media freedom advocacy group the Center for Independent Journalism (CIJ) has launched its Watching the Watchdogs website.
“We want to check that the media – a key player in elections and in any democracy – is performing its role, and hold them to account,” said CIJ Malaysia executive officer Masjaliza Hamzah.
“The findings from this project would make the media aware of public scrutiny of their work and encourage better performance with regard to providing access to information and (acting as) a platform for diverse views and voices, especially during the general election,” she told Digital News Asia (DNA) via email.
Masjaliza said CIJ had monitored print and online media in the previous general election in 2008, as well as a number of by-elections since then.
At that time, “the methodology was a lot simpler, with articles coded as negative or positive in terms of their bias towards candidates and political parties or coalitions.
“For GE13, we are embarking on a massive project, monitoring 29 types of media using a more thorough and objective method of monitoring, and are collaborating with academics from the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus (UNMC),” she added.
This time, the media monitoring will encompass news articles and editorials in print, online and television, in the main languages: Malay, English, Chinese and Tamil. It will include public-funded media such as Bernama Online and RTM news. The monitoring exercise will begin April 6 and end two days after polling day.
“We have coders who have been trained in the methodology – many are students from public and private universities in Penang, Kuching, Kota Kinabalu, as well as the UNMC campus in Semenyih,” Masjaliza said.
The coding will be done on a spreadsheet and the data fed into the SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences) statistical analysis program. “Later, our team of researchers will look into content and discourse analysis,” she said.
CIJ will release two medium-term reports and a comprehensive final report, and will host a press conference to share the reports.
It will invite all stakeholders to the press conference: The media organizations themselves, journalist groups, the relevant government departments, Suhakam (the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia), the Election Commission, political parties, Members of Parliament, civil society organizations, members of the diplomatic corps, academics, communications students and researchers, etc.
“A final printed report will be released about six months after the election results, to be distributed to libraries and all stakeholders. It will include recommendations to improve coverage to media organizations, as well as suggestions to the Election Commission. It will be presented in a public forum and small consultations with the key stakeholders above,” Masjaliza said.
There is no doubt that media consumption enjoys a sharp rise during elections, thanks to the increased demand for information. And there is no doubt that having free access to information is an integral part of any democracy.
It was why Google Malaysia launched its Malaysian General Election page, with a spokesman saying “… we want to make sure Malaysians have access to all the information available to them in order to help them make a well-informed decision on election day.”
Google hopes that this page would act as a central hub and clearing house for all information related to GE13, and is working with a host of non-governmental organizations, the main politcal parties as well as major media outlets, including mainstream media outlets.
And that makes sense – despite being much-maligned in recent years, especially with the rise of independent media, the mainstream media has vast resources it can bring to bear, and can also leverage off the synergy between its offline and online resources.
For instance, The Star is not only the No 1 English daily newspaper, but its online version is also the second most popular news website in the country after independent online publication Malaysiakini; it also has a very popular iOS app.
[Disclosure: This writer was with The Star from 1987 to 2010.]
It has set up a special GE13 page which collates all its election-related articles, videos (including those from its SwitchTV online TV channel), photo gallery and even voter guides and other special features.
Synergy between different media platforms, and convergence, is also the name of the game for Astro Awani (pic), the country’s first 24-hour news and information channel (Channel 501 for subscribers to the Astro satellite TV service).
“Astro Awani is going to set a new standard of convergence in the news dissemination space this year,” its vice president and general manager Rozina Aziz (pic) confidently declared of the bi-lingual (Malay and English) channel, promising breaking news and in-depth analyses 24 hours a day.
“At Astro, we believe that news and content should be platform agnostic,” she said, adding that this encompasses TV, the Web, social media plugs, mobile and especially its new Astro On-The-Go (AOTG) service, which is now also available to Malaysians living or traveling abroad.
The station recently launched its Astro Awani dual-language news site, which Rozina claimed crossed the one-million page-view mark within a week.
“Astro Awani.com is an interactive platform, delivering election results real-time through multiple graphs and charts. A map will highlight the winners of key constituencies,” she added.
Alternative media all set
But if past elections are anything to go by, it’s the alternative media that will come to the fore, at least in most urban constituencies. Relatively unfettered by repressive media laws and political party ownership, a large part of the battle for mind-share will play out in news sites like Free Malaysia Today, Malaysiakini and The Malaysian Insider.
Malaysakini has already launched its own GE13 hub called Undi.info, its chief executive officer Premesh Chandran noted.
“We will also be expanding our editorial coverage, and will have more journalists on the ground in all key battlegrounds,” he added. Its KiniTV online video channel would also be doing live programming from the ground.
Malaysiakini also stands out because it’s the country’s only general news site operating on the subscription model – the only other Malaysian news site with a paywall is its sister business publication, KiniBiz.
“We will be going free during the campaign period,” said Premesh (pic). “All paying subscribers will be compensated with extensions to their current subscription period.”
Its closest competitor The Malaysian Insider (TMI) will be focused on providing the best editorial coverage it can, but also has a surprise in store on the mobile and tablet front, according to its chief executive officer and editor Jahabar Sadiq.
“We're in the midst of putting up some apps for both the iOS and Android platforms, and they
should be ready by this weekend, covering all the information and news related to Election 2013,” he told DNA via email.
“As for the website per se, there'll be some changes on Election Day, but we feel that our current design is good enough for election coverage without the need for a dedicated section. We have yet to consider video due to staffing issues, but we might do something on Election Night,” he added.
Independent websites like Malaysiakini and TMI have usually borne the brunt of cyber-attacks, whether they are Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks to bring their web servers down, or actual genuine hacker attempts, as noted above by the US-based Freedom House.
It doesn’t help that this is expected to be the most closely-fought election in the country’s history, with Opposition politicians expecting it to be the “dirtiest election ever.” With their increasing importance as platforms for critical discourse, these independent sites are prime targets.
“There has already been a major DDOS attack on our site that nearly knocked out our provider,” said TMI’s Jahabar.
“Those attacks are still continuing but our servers have taken the brunt of it. The weak link is our connectivity to the World Wide Web and we’re working with our partners to ensure this is compromised.
“As for hacking, there were attempts in the past, but I doubt there will be any as we have managed to clean up and close weak spots in the system,” he added.
Premesh said that Malaysiakini has moved its entire infrastructure to the cloud, hosted by Google, Microsoft Azure, and Amazon Web Services.
“These cloud services allow us to scale up and have better defenses against DDoS attacks. That said, we expect there to be trouble and will alert our users to access our Facebook and Twitter feeds for the latest news,” he said.
TMI and Malaysiakini servers will not only have to face off attacks, but be expected to take the strain of sharply increased web traffic.
“We expect over 15-20 million unique devices, about 80% of adult Internet users, to access Malaysiakini during the election period, up from 2.8 million on normal days,” said Premesh.
“We are not sure if the Internet will hold during the counting period,” he added. “We are preparing non-Internet based options.”
TMI itself has been experiencing a 20% to 50% spike in traffic spike since its new website design came into effect on Feb 25, which also coincided with the Sulu incursion.
“We expect traffic to double, especially mobile traffic, and will double our bandwidth with our provider AIMS,” said Jahabar (pic). “We also have CDN (content delivery network) facilities for our rich media content.”
A CDN is a distributed system of servers deployed in multiple data centers across the Internet.
TMI has not been having an easy time. In mid-March, industry regulator the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) opened a criminal investigation into the portal over a story it published on March 14 titled “Malaysia uses spyware against own citizens, NYT reports.”
The MCMC alleged that the report was “speculative and ill-researched.” MCMC’s action was seen by many critics of the current government as a crackdown ahead of the election, but Jahabar himself was quite neutral, saying then that TMI would cooperate fully with the Commission in its investigation.
Many are still expecting increased scrutiny and a possible crackdown now that the election campaign is in full gear, but he disagrees.
“I doubt there'll be any crackdown on the alternative media simply because the ruling coalition has been actively buying ad space in almost all portals and through network ad companies,” he told DNA. “It doesn’t serve the ruling coalition any good to take any such action against the alternative media. They need us to remain credible.”
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