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Ensure fair media coverage in Malaysia's elections

As Malaysians go to the polls on Sunday, 5 May 2013, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) is concerned that voters are being denied their rights to fair and credible sources of information. For any electoral process to be meaningful in a democracy, citizens must be able to access fair and accurate information, from diverse sources, so that they can make informed choices.

The 13th General Elections in Malaysia has been described as a tough election between the incumbent ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, which has governed the country for more than 50 years, and the Pakatan Rakyat coalition led by former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim.

According to preliminary results from a media monitoring activity undertaken by the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus and the Centre for Independent Journalism, mainstream media coverage of the elections campaigns were significantly biased towards the incumbent, Barisan Nasional.

Online portals were found to be more balanced in the number and slant of stories of the contesting parties and candidates. Yet, even with a high internet penetration rate of over 60% in the country, there are large segments of society that do not have regular and affordable access to online information.

The broadcast and print media, which have wider reach, are strongly controlled by the government. The state broadcaster, Radio Television Malaysia (RTM), mainly broadcasts campaign information for the incumbent government. Giving in to public pressure, it offered 10 minutes of broadcast time for political parties in the opposing coalition, for the first time, to air their pre-recorded party manifestos. Political parties in the Pakatan Rakyat coalition have rejected the offer, saying it made a mockery of fair and adequate media access to all parties contesting in the elections.

SEAPA is also concerned about incidents of intimidation of journalists in the run up to the elections. According to the electoral reform group, Bersih, at least four reports of intimidation or obstruction in the work of the media workers were reported:

8 April: A reporter, who made inquiries about vehicles belonging to the Information Department that were reported to have facilitated the launch of Barisan Nasional's command centre in Kuala Lumpur, was threatened by a party official.

22 April: Media personnel covering nominations for the Sibuti parliamentary constituency in the state of Sarawak, were allegedly prevented from entering the nomination centre despite showing their official media passes.

24 April: A reporter with the Chinese daily Nanyang Siang Pau said she was attacked by BN party workers at an operations centre in Kuantan, Pahang. The police had not only refused to take her report, they also told her to delete photographs she took of the attacks.

25 April: A photo journalist from China Press was punched by a man from a group of motorcyclists wearing blue 1Malaysia T-shirts who were disrupting a public talk organised by the Democratic Action Party (DAP) in Bukit Gelugor, Penang.

We call upon all the media outlets to apply the highest standards of professionalism and ethics in their coverage of the general elections and the campaign. SEAPA calls on journalists who are members of the National Union of Journalists to heed a resolution passed at its Extraordinary Delegates Conference on 3 March 2012, "to subscribe to fair reporting which is also in line with NUJ's Code of Ethics, and endeavour to ensure that balanced reports are published."

At the same time, we call upon the Election Commission and all political parties and candidates and their supporters to respect the rights of the journalists in their duties to report during the elections and refrain from using any means of intimidation, harassment or violence towards media personnel.

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