‘Watching the Watchdog 2.0’ Report on the Malaysian Media Coverage of GE14

Newsmaking is a constructed process. Decisions about what and whom to cover and how to portray the actors or issues are deliberate. The coverage of political events, especially general elections, provides a useful lens into the workings of the media, especially against the backdrop of media control through ownership and legislation.

This report presents key findings from the monitoring of news media coverage of the 14th General Election in 2018 – from the dissolution of Parliament on 7 April 2018 until 12 May 2018, three days after the elections on 9 May 2018. It was conducted by the Centre for the Study of Communications and Culture under the School of Media, Languages and Cultures at the University of Nottingham Malaysia. The monitoring, with the help of 50 volunteers, covered a total of 24 outlets from the state and private media. The content was selected from the home/national pages/segments and coded to assess the coverage of 20 categories of information that are explained in detail later.

For more than 60 years, the state and market scrutinised and regulated the media in Malaysia in varying degrees, depending on the media. Direct political party ownership and control of the media began with the print media. This was initially marked by a struggle for editorial control of the leading national Malay daily, Utusan Melayu (Utusan). It was eventually taken over in the 1960s by UMNO (United Malays National Organisation), the Malay party that formed the national alliance post-independence. The Chinese and Indian parties in the coalition – the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) – followed suit when they took over the ownership of several Chinese, Tamil and even English language newspapers. Broadcasting was under direct state control from inception. The mid-1980s saw the emergence of private but politically-linked – broadcasters and trends towards a conglomeration of media and cross-ownership of media and other businesses. Besides, there was a range of laws that restrict reporting and expression. The details will be discussed separately in the section on the legal framework.

This media landscape provides the backdrop for the study, which follows the monitoring framework during the general election in 2013. The trends in reporting in 2018 differed very little when compared to the findings in 2013, and other academic analyses of media coverage of polls over the years.

Below are some key points that emerged from the analysis in 2018:

• Bias was most evident in the state-owned media and some of the private media aligned to the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, based on how they covered the political parties, coalitions and politicians.

• Media outlets within the same media groups – especially those in the Media Prima and Media Chinese International Limited (MCIL) groups – tended to be consistent in terms of coverage and tone of coverage. There were some differences in the Sarawak-based KTS stable – Oriental Daily gave a much more balanced coverage while Utusan Borneo published high levels of pro-BN content. The news coverage in RTM showed a slight variation across the different languages.

• Chinese language newspapers appeared fairer when it came to quoting politicians from both BN and opposing Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition as sources.

• Regional newspapers were prominent in focusing on local interests or issues, as shown by the Sabah-based publications. However, the four that were monitored tended to be favourable to BN in their coverage.

• Media coverage of the election prioritised parties and politicians rather than policies.

• Top political leaders dominated the narratives in most of the media outlets with a few exceptions such as Malay Mail Online that featured a wider variety of sources and political figures.

• The public voice was minimal, and sources tended to be male-dominated.

As the patterns of reporting across the mainstream media showed very little change between 2013 and 2018 despite the growing public calls for independent and fair coverage, we list here a set of recommendations for the various stakeholders.

To the media (owners, publishers, editorial):
• Enforce and defend editorial independence to ensure free and fair coverage
• Focus on issues and policies to encourage a more informed electorate rather than personalities in elections coverage
• Provide more critical and evaluative reporting programmes for media personnel
• Ensure the highest standards of ethical and professional reporting
• Introduce gender-sensitive reporting in newsrooms

To legislators:
• Enact laws or policies to prevent political party monopoly ownership of public media
• Reform laws that restrain open and critical media coverage
• Legislate protection for media professionals in the course of conducting their professional duties
• Legislate for transparency and accountability in political advertising through the media

Recommendations to political parties, government and state bodies:
• Ensure equal access to state and other political functions for media professionals, especially during election campaigns
• End harassment of and attacks against media workers

Recommendations to academia, civil society, public
• Enhance and expand media literacy programmes
• Hold media accountable for ethical and professional reporting Download Full Text

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