The idea of forming a Malaysian Media Council to regulate the sector has taken on renewed life following the watershed 14th general election.
Early this month, Datuk A Kadir Jasin, the prime minister’s media and communications adviser, told a forum that the government wants the process of setting up the council to be expedited and encouraged its proponents to include all stakeholders in the discussion.
He hoped that the framework for the council’s establishment could be worked out before the year-end.
In the spirit of openness that has blossomed with the advent of the Pakatan Harapan government, it would be fruitful to pay careful attention to several factors that may subvert the regulatory role of the media council.
Failure to address these weaknesses could rob the country of a rare opportunity to create a media environment that supports the democratic aspirations of its people.
As an institution that wields great power, notwithstanding the disruption of the digital era, the media is a natural magnet for special interest groups that seek political influence, business advantage, mass mobilisation and avenues for shaping public opinion.
These forces can be put to positive use, but are too often used for darker purposes.
As we have seen in the past six decades under Barisan Nasional’s rule, the media has come largely under the control of political parties or politically connected businesses, leading to the severe erosion of its independence. This eventually led to the decline in the readership, viewership and profitability of the media publications in the last few years.
The slanting of reportage towards the then ruling coalition and the vilification of its political opponents by these media houses would be especially pronounced during election season.
The relentless negative political coverage has not just undermined the readership of these publications, but also affected their editorial integrity, which has come under scrutiny in a series of damaging defamation suits in recent years.
Quite obviously, this political bias of the mainstream media contributed significantly to the rising popularity of alternative media channels, particularly during times of political crises.
For example, the growth of news portals like Malaysiakini and other sites is seen to track major events like the birth of the Reformasi movement and key general elections.
As a result of this hegemonic political influence over media organisations, more than one generation of journalists have spent their working lives largely oblivious to fundamental principles of journalistic ethics like independence, objectivity, balanced reporting and validation in the exercise of their duties.
This may be bitter medicine for many in the profession but needs to be said for an honest acknowledgement of the weak ethical foundations of the news business today.
The bare truth is that much of the mainstream media has functioned as the propaganda machinery of political parties or their politically connected owners.
It follows that a media council guided by journalists from that mould would be poorly equipped to foster the free media environment that is the hallmark of a mature democracy that Malaysia can now aspire to be.
So, care must be taken right now to ensure that the establishment of a media council is set within a framework that enshrines the independence of the media and its ethical foundations as key institutional pillars.
A second issue, and one that has been highlighted by media watchdog groups, is that the formation of a media council would be meaningless without the removal of oppressive laws that hinder freedom of expression.
As a proposal to amend or abolish these laws is reportedly due to be tabled to the Cabinet soon, further discussion on this point should be taken up when details of the proposed changes are made known.
Nevertheless, it needs to be noted that an unfettered press would provide room for a diversity of opinions, including on issues that had been treated with kid gloves in the era prior to the last general election.
Issues relating to race and religion, the special rights of Malays and the royal institution, affirmative action and other matters deemed sensitive in the previous political order would naturally get a better airing in the new dispensation.
These debates will require mature handling by media organisations that had been used to amplify the positions of the race-based parties that control them. Suffice to say that the learning curve will be rather steep for these organisations to support a more open, inclusive public space that New Malaysia requires.
A third point that warrants attention is the idea of self-regulation, which has been mentioned in the same breath with various proposals for a media council to date.
It would be useful to examine the effectiveness of this mechanism in professions where it is practised before the concept is adopted by the media council’s proponents.
To illustrate, the persistent calls for an Independent Police Complaint and Misconduct Commission to be established since the proposal for it was made in 2005 reflect the importance of independent oversight of institutions to inspire confidence in their effectiveness.
For the media, it would be relevant to consider the case of an independent media ombudsman as a component of a media council to handle complaints against media organisations.
The case for such an office can be made by referring to the experience of media regulation in other jurisdictions.
While the ombudsman in its classical form is an independent entity that represents public interest, there are some examples of the ombudsman function that have been co-opted by industry to manage customer relations. Such arrangements carry the danger of diluting the independence of the office and would not serve the people’s interest.
In any case, it may be appropriate for the proposed media council to take an incremental approach towards raising the bar for the sector, so that such media organisations can work gradually to regain the lost trust of their readers.
Fourthly, the role of a government representative on the media council, which had been a fixture in previous proposals, should be excised in its new iteration.
Given the potential for the executive to influence the Fourth Estate, the importance of ensuring the separation of powers between the two cannot be overstated in the regulation of the media.
It is encouraging that a suggestion has been made for the media council to report to parliament and augurs well for a new age in the development of the Malaysian media story.
Fifthly, it is important that senior members of the media fraternity resist the temptation to treat the media council as a comfortable post-retirement sanctuary, as sometimes happens when plans are developed for oversight institutions.
Some proponents of the proposed media council are reported to be meeting Kadir this week with the aim of moving the agenda forward. It is hoped that the proposal will set the stage for a media environment that will serve the nation’s best interests.
Rash Behari Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge Malaysia