We are supposed to embrace a new Malaysia now that Pakatan Harapan (PH) is in power with press freedom as one of the aspects that we should enjoy.
After all, press freedom was one of the campaign themes and promises by PH before the 14th general election (GE14). Voters and Malaysians as a whole were excited and looked forward for a change in the media landscape in the country.
But after ten months, has media freedom (including how RTM covered opposition states) changed?
A few weeks after taking over power from the Barisan Nasional (BN), PH assured greater space for press freedom in the country.
Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo said the PH government was fully committed to building a system where the media would report without fear or favour.
Equally important is giving ample space and airtime to the opposition and dissenting views, otherwise, claiming there is press freedom is just an empty talk.
Discourse and counter discourse should be allowed and entertained by the current government because only by practising such kind of media freedom can we become a developed and mature democracy.
Let me quote a famous American journalist, Walter Lippman who said, “A free press is not a privilege but an organic necessity in a great society.”
Walter Cronkite, a renowned US broadcast journalist and anchorman for the CBS Evening News for 19 years in the 1960s and 1970s even said, “Freedom of the press is not just important for democracy, it is democracy.”
Without a free press, questions will not be asked, stories will not be told and power will not be challenged.
Gobind was quoted as saying, allowing greater press freedom was a major aspect of the reform that the Communications and Multimedia Ministry will undertake.
“The focus must be on the people being given room to express their views, including people on the other side (opposition), so that the people can make their own evaluation,” he said.
But did PH fulfil its promise to widen the public sphere, including giving enough airtime on RTM to opposition states? Do we really want to turn RTM into a marketplace of ideas or just another political tool of the government of the day (in this case the PH)?
Promising is one thing, but fulfilling a promise is a different thing altogether especially when one is in power.
If PH really wants to be seen as a credible government, it has no choice but to stand by its words. People would be more convinced by their actions rather than by their words.
Let’s call a spade a spade. Are there changes in terms of RTM’s editorial policy and coverage since PH came to power?
Under the BN government, RTM was the government’s mouthpiece. Bear in mind, RTM is funded by the taxpayers, thus it is a public property. Therefore, it is downright wrong or abuse/misuse of public funds to only give coverage to the government, particularly when the news is not political in nature.
I believe the people under the so-called new Malaysia don’t want to see the taxpayer-funded station to be used as PH’s propagandists. Otherwise, the promises are mere empty talk that does not give much credence to PH.
What we want is a more balanced, objective and fair coverage by RTM especially when it is good for the nation.
RTM should not be used and abused as a political hegemonic tool by the government. Instead, RTM should be used to promote unity, enhance social cohesion and national integration.
RTM should be above politics. It’s not only embarrassing but also a disservice to the nation if RTM doesn’t play its role according to the original purpose of its establishment. It has to abide by its vision to engage the people’s hearts and minds through radio, television and new media services.
As the national broadcasting body which now operates 35 radio stations, two TV stations and TVi, RTM has to be fully aware that its main role and objective is to fulfill the government’s social responsibility. Its social responsibility is to disseminate information and unite the people of various races in this country.
National integration is also definitely one of its agendas which l believe cannot be compromised. People in all the 13 states must feel that they are Malaysians, and broadcasting station like RTM plays pertinent role in helping the country achieve this agenda.
We want a united, not a divided, Malaysia. Extreme state parochialism or provincialism as propagated by certain quarters should be avoided because it is damaging to the future of the nation.
Surely, one of the original objectives, to enhance social cohesion and national integration is still relevant today irrespective of who rules this country, unless of course PH doesn’t deem national integration important. Or that Sarawak and Sabah is no longer important in Malaysia.
Be honest to the truth: Is RTM giving fair coverage to Sarawak? Last week former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak alleged that official guidelines for news coverage in opposition states only allowed federal government officers to be featured.
He claimed that the PH federal government was not sticking to its assurance of media freedom in Malaysia.
“PH said the government guarantees media freedom. PH supporters then cheer and clap. But actually behind closed doors, it is a different story,” Najib posted on Facebook on Thursday.
Sarawak’s Tourism, Culture, Arts, Youth and Sports Minister Datuk Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah said such guidelines for states under opposition rule are narrow-minded and may subvert the national broadcaster’s original purpose which is to promote and uphold unity.
He said in Sarawak, most of the state government programmes are meant to unite the people, but RTM failed to cover those events. He conceded that if it was a Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) roadshow or anything political, it was fine if there was no coverage.
“But if it is a programme that promotes unity like Chinese New Year, Hari Raya Puasa, Gawai Dayak and Christmas celebrations, RTM should be doing the coverage because that was why RTM was established in the first place,” he was quoted by the media yesterday.
Or did PH make another U-turn just like other backpedalling on various other promises made when they in the opposition?
However, Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo has explained that his ministry did not issue specific directives or guidelines to RTM on its coverage of states under opposition rule.
According to Gobind, he also never gave such instructions to RTM or asked RTM to provide an explanation regarding the matter. If that is the case, who are the Little Napoleons who dared to formulate and issue such guidelines without the knowledge and consent of their higher-ups?
“This isn’t the instruction issued by the ministry or me. I was informed that this was the result of RTM’s state-level internal discussions in the affected states. That is my response to what was said by a former prime minister in his Facebook,” he told the media.
Well and good, and we hope Gobind as a credible minister speaks the truth about the subject matter.
Or else, RTM has to really search its soul and act for the good of the nation in the long run, devoid of short term and a narrow political agenda.
Viewers and 32.6 million Malaysians want a reformed RTM that is more vibrant, objective and professional in it approach and coverage.
After all, RTM is a public body paid by Malaysian taxpayers, not just by PH supporters, PH-ruled states or members only.
Associate Professor Dr Jeniri Amir is a political communication lecturer and a political analyst at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak.