WITH the new Pakatan Harapan government’s electoral pledge to usher in a freer media environment, the path the mainstream media is taking after May 9 is very much being watched by Malaysians, especially those who thirst for freedom of expression.
This is especially so in the case of media organisations owned and controlled by certain component parties of the trounced Barisan Nasional, namely by Umno and MCA.
The PH government has already made it known that it will consider repealing the hastily instituted Anti-Fake News Act, as it was generally perceived to be used by the BN administration to curb or criminalise criticism of the previous government.
In the spirit of media reform and democracy, some civil society groups have called on the PH government to also consider repealing or reviewing certain other illiberal laws that govern the media industry, such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act, Official Secrets Act, and Sedition Act.
Some of these media find themselves sitting between the wishes of the BN component parties who own and control them, and expectations to serve the government of the day.
This may well lend some of these media outlets the opportunity to practise fair and ethical reporting, which they have sidestepped for a long time. This may also be the only option left to them to stay relevant and survive in this new political climate.
A cursory look at the print copies of both the New Straits Times and The Star, for example, suggests an attempt to cover issues and events associated with the current government, besides reporting the other side of the political divide.
Unlike The Star, the NST carries few advertisements, which may not help cover its operating expenditures. There are small ads, including lottery results.
Additionally, ownership structures in these media may create a challenge or conflict when it comes to deciding their direction. For example, Umno holds a 19.05% stake, through Gabungan Kesturi Sdn Bhd and Altima Inc, in Media Prima, the country’s biggest media conglomerate which operates four television networks, six print publications, and a few radio stations.
Other substantial shareholders – particularly state-owned investment funds such as Employees’ Provident Fund, Permodalan Nasional Berhad, and Kumpulan Wang Persaraan (Diperbadankan) – collectively hold a 35.97% stake in the company. This makes Umno’s position in Media Prima susceptible to corporate plans of state-owned investment funds that may run counter to the former’s interests.
There is also a similar situation in Star Media Group Bhd, which publishes The Starm the largest circulating English daily, and operates Chinese-language radio station 988 and dimsum.my, a homegrown video-on-demand service.
Star Media is a major income earner for MCA, which has a stake of 43.03% in it. Other shareholders are state-owned investment funds, such as PNB, EPF, KWAP, Lembaga Tabung Haji, and a few others, which collectively constitute a 32.57% stake in the group. MCA may feel uncomfortable if the other shareholders disagree with the media group’s plans.
Utusan Melayu, which publishes Utusan Malaysia, Mingguan Malaysia, and Kosmo!, is another media group controlled by Umno, which holds a 49.77% stake.
Nilam Setar (M) Sdn Bhd – owned by businessman Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary, who is known to be close to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – is the second largest shareholder, with a 14.76% stake. There is potential for tension in the group, given the ownership structure.
Utusan Melayu has been bleeding heavily financially for six consecutive years, with accumulated losses of RM71.4 million at the beginning of this year. One possible reason for this is the overall content of its publications, which is generally biased towards Umno and Malay politics.
In this “new Malaysia”, the Umno media group could do with a paradigm shift as one measure to turn itself around. But this approach may not be feasible, as long as Utusan Malaysia, in particular, functions more like an Umno party organ than a newspaper.
With the exception of a smattering of government-related ads and bankruptcy notices, advertisements in Utusan Malaysia are noticeably depleting – which obviously isn’t good for its financial health.
In contrast, daily Sinar Harian, the flagship of Karangkraf media group, has thrived and grown for the past 12 years, serving mainly peninsular Malaysia via its eight regional editions.
On how SH could survive without much run-in with the powers-that-be, Karangkraf chairman-CEO-group managing director Husssamuddin Hj Yaacub explained that SH did try to push the envelope, but at the same time practised fair and responsible reporting.
He said, however, that Karangkraf, which is not owned by any political parties, did have its publications banned sometime ago, in particular Bacaria, Watan and Eksklusif, but these cases did not deter him from moving on because his other businesses made it possible for him to survive.
Having four separate core business divisions – magazine, book, newspaper and printing divisions – helped him evade business collapse and consequent layoff of workers, he added.
Hussamuddin’s media business model appears to be based on the principle of “you shut one publication, I’ll do something else”.
The new era promises to be a challenging time, especially to the politically-affiliated media. However, it is also a test of the extent the PH government is willing to go to fulfil its pledge to create a better media environment.
THE MALAYSIAN INSIGHT