Media battle looms for swing votes

Nov 14, 1999



A range of alternative media and political websites spells war to control what the voter will read and see in the  crucial run-up to the polls
                     
NEWS ANALYSIS By BRENDAN PEREIRA

SEVERAL days ago, an item on TV3's nightly news stood out.
                     
A crew from the private television station toured the  constituency of prominent DAP leader Karpal Singh, and  interviewed residents about his performance since the last 
general election in 1995.
                     
The report card was damning: Millions of viewers were told  that the famous criminal lawyer did not spend much time in  Jelutong and made little difference to the lives of those in living this Penang suburb.
                     
The report signalled the start of the battle to win over  voters through the media in the run up to the Nov 29 polls.
                     
Political analysts and opposition members say that positive  exposure through the television and newspapers is important,  especially in the home stretch, when converting "fence sitters" is critical.
                     
This time around, the need to have good coverage may be more pressing.
                     
A survey commissioned by The Star newspaper revealed that 40 per cent of the electorate was still undecided on who they were going to vote for -- the National Front or the 
Alternative Front.
                     
Parti Keadilan Nasional's No 2, Dr Chandra Muzzafar, urged the local media to give opposition parties equitable space and allow their views to be disseminated to Malaysians.
                     
But really, he should not fret.
                     
He and his friends today are not going to suffer from the near news blackout that their predecessors faced in 1986, 1990 and 1995.
                     
Alternative media have sprouted like mushrooms after rain following the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim as Deputy Prime Minister.
                     
There are numerous anti-government websites, three Malay-language newspapers that prefer Anwar or PAS ideologue Nik Aziz Nik Mat on their pages to Prime Minister Datuk Seri 
Dr Mahathir Mohamad, a healthy sprinkling of magazines with provocative titles such as "Umno suffering from menopause" being sold at hole-in-the-wall shops.
                     
All of them give opposition politicians the space and reach they only dreamed of.
                     
A pro-reformasi website carried the full text of Dr Chandra's statement following the announcement to dissolve Parliament, while another had an extensive interview with Dr 
Syed Husin Ali, president of Parti Rakyat Malaysia.
                     
The Malaysian -- a daily newsletter on the Net -- had this message for voters: "The days of sweeping things under the carpet, grumbling in coffeeshops and pretending that things 
are fine is coming to an end."
                     
The publisher urged surfers to circulate the newsletter.
                     
Mr Sabri Zain, who has a popular cyber column called Reformasi Diary, praises the reach and power of the Internet.
                     
"Certainly the anti-government websites are talking to the converted but there are many lurkers out there. There are many fence-sitters interested in what the other side has to say."
                     
There are one million registered Internet users in Malaysia but Mr Zein Isma, head of Umno's Internet division, thinks the number of regulars is much lower.
                     
About 8,000 people log on to anti-government websites an hour on weekdays and 16,000 on weekends.
                     
Mr Sabri points out that cyber-campaigning includes disseminating printouts to people in rural areas and those without access to computers.
                     
"They fax it, photocopy it and distribute it. There is already a network of information that is completely unstructured and informal. The effect will be far-reaching to the electorate."
                     
Alternative newspapers like Harakah, Exclusive and Warta KL enjoy circulation of between 100,000 and 260,000 -- numbers which put some of the more established papers to shame.
                     
But numbers is only half of the story.
                     
Mr Ahmad Lutfi Othman, editor of Detik, a monthly magazine with sales hitting 50,000 copies, notes that many of the subscribers of alternative newspapers and magazines are 
opposition members.
                     
These publications, like the mainstream ones, suffer from a credibility problem.
                     
"You cannot be publishing articles written by unknown people or where you are just critical," said the editor, who may be out of a job soon.
                     
The Home Ministry has just warned the publisher that the paper has broken the terms of its licence.
                     
Instead of devoting itself to education, the ministry noted that 99 per cent of its content was politics.
                     
The view that television programmes with live debates and visuals were the most powerful tool in the last days of campaigning seems to be borne out by The Star survey done 
independently by a team of university researchers.
                     
Nearly 80 per cent of those polled said that they obtained news about politics by watching the nightly news, especially TV3's interpretation of events.
                     
The private station's coverage is almost always not charitable to the opposition.
                     
No wonder PAS and Parti Keadilan members in certain states have barred crews from the station from covering their political rallies.
                     
In Kelantan, representatives of the station have been issued an ominous warning by PAS -- cover our functions if you want, but we will not guarantee your safety.

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