THE Barisan Nasional administration is losing its influence among voters through the major newspapers it controls due to falling circulation figures, a media observer said.

KarangKraf Media Group executive editorial adviser Abdul Jalil Ali said a weak mainstream press with low readership was bad news for the ruling coalition with the 14th general election around the corner.

Jalil, who also sits on several government advisory panels, said the newspaper industry was now under a lot of pressure due to readership loss.

“Imagine, previously, Sinar Harian sold 130,000 copies a day. Now, it is half the figure. Other newspapers are faring even worse,” he told The Malaysian Insight.

The New Straits Times was the second worst, with circulation falling 41.6% from 93,321 copies at the end of 2012 to 54,490 copies at the end of last year.

Major Bahasa Malaysia dailies Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian each saw their circulation figures fall by 30% in the same period.

Losing control of the news

Mainstream newspapers in Malaysia have long been an important part of the ruling coalition’s election machinery.

Putrajaya keeps a tight rein on news content with laws such as the Sedition Act, and newspapers still need a permit to publish under the Printing Presses and Publications Act, although other requirements, such as annual permit renewals, have been relaxed in recent years.

NST, Berita Harian and Metro are owned by the Media Prima group under entities friendly to the ruling government.

The Star is majority-owned by political party MCA through its investment arm, while ruling Malay party Umno owns about 50% of shares in Utusan.

Jalil said lower circulation figures indicated that the government could no longer influence voters through the media it controlled.

“To me, the government is in trouble and so is Prime Minister Najib Razak. I’ve said this before in several meetings I’ve attended.”

He said the government may be able to control certain media, but it could not control the spread and content of news.

“I’ve said it before to the authorities; you cannot block news in this day and age any more.

“What they should do instead is be clever when explaining and answering to all news.”

Jalil, who had led the newsrooms of now-defunct alternative press publications, such as Watan and Eksklusif, said only the alternative press was willing to challenge the narrative of the mainstream press.

Watan was published in the 1980s and closed during Operasi Lalang, while Eksklusif was published following the Reformsi period in the late 1990s.

Jalil said the role of such publications had been taken over by online media in various forms, including social media, where almost anyone could be a content producer and publisher.

“In the past, the government used to say that the alternative press comprised opposition supporters. But this is not true. Alternative media practitioners are independent in criticising and in airing their views.  

“We merely reported what was not reported in the mainstream media. And now, the government can no longer control the spread of news through the internet.”