Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Media changes tone after shock poll results

Mar 12, 08 4:12pm

The government-friendly media has changed its tone after shock election gains by the opposition, aiming to win back readers alienated by biased coverage, industry sources said today.

Malaysia's mainstream newspapers and television networks, many of them partly government-owned, were awash with flattering coverage of the ruling coalition ahead of Saturday's polls.

But after unprecedented losses, which saw the government lose its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time in four decades, opposition figures who had been ignored or vilified are now being splashed on front pages.

"It is a wake-up call for us. The mainstream media should revisit and review our policies," said Azman Ujang, general manager of the state news agency Bernama.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranks Malaysia 124 out of 169 on its worldwide press freedom index, and says the main media are "often compelled to ignore or to play down the many events organised by the opposition".

A lot of soul-searching

But Azman said the mainstream media now has a "higher responsibility" to report news fairly or face being abandoned by its audience, which flocked to blogs and online news portals for impartial election coverage.

"Malaysian media can learn from this because the people have spoken loud and clear, not only what kind of government they want but also the kind of media they prefer," he told AFP.

Gayathry Venkiteswaran from Centre for Independent Journalism said there had been some "positive changes" in media which likely felt they now had no choice but to report fairly on the opposition.

"Editors and journalists here have to do a lot of soul-searching. It is very hard to dismantle practices which have been in place for such a long time."

On Wednesday, the government-linked New Straits Times, which attacked opposition figurehead Anwar Ibrahim last week, ran a front-page report detailing the opposition's agenda as it assumes power in Penang state.

"New Penang chief minister rings in the changes," it said, listing initiatives including fighting corruption and promoting clean government, in coverage unthinkable only days ago.

Dwindling readership

Media consultant G Manimaran said the media had the chance to reverse dwindling readership among urban, educated Malaysians who have been moving to alternative online sources of information.

"This is the first time in 20 years of journalism that I am seeing people queueing up to buy newspapers," he said.

A senior journalist from the government-linked press said that with Malaysia's richest states of Penang and Selangor - which surrounds Kuala Lumpur - in opposition hands, media owners had to switch tack.

"With so many states under the opposition you have to be fair in reporting or the paper is going to lose a lot of money," said the journalist who declined to be named.

Malaysians polled by AFP said they were pleasantly surprised with the post-election coverage.

"They (mainstream newspapers) were obviously one-sided before but now at least they are giving much better coverage. We see more opposition faces, this is certainly fairer," said Alex Matthews, a doctor.

"Although I don't usually read papers, I thought it was better coverage. The papers were snapped up so fast," said lawyer Audrey Pillai.

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