MARCH 19, 2004 FRI

With few interesting things to report compared to the 1999 drama, the media has given more play to the opposition

Fairer poll coverage in a calmer climate

By Woon Wui Tek

AS MALAYSIA'S election enters its final phase, journalists and readers agree that, compared to the 1999 polls, there is a dearth of interesting things to report.
But could anything interesting be said of the reporting?
Overall, there has been no stunning surprise: The mainstream media has devoted much of its space and time to the Barisan Nasional (BN) and its candidates.
'We don't pretend otherwise,' said a senior journalist with a major Malay-language newspaper.
But there does appear to have been a subtle but noticeable change from 1999, when the airwaves and written reports featured talk of violence, hatred and instability in the country.
In a calmer atmosphere, more stories have appeared giving play to opposition candidates, if not necessarily in prime slots.
'By and large, the mainstream media remains very 'pro' ruling coalition', notes social activist and political scientist Chandra Muzaffar.
But he detects the absence of a previous 'sense of aggressiveness'.
'There has been more space given to the opposition, and that is to be encouraged.'
When this is broached with Mr Wong Sai Wan, news editor at the largest English daily, The Star, he credits the opposition for being less hostile.
'Previously, we tried our best but they sometimes made us the issue,' he said over the phone.
'This time, it's different. We have even had stories about people sharing a home but having different views.'
Mr Steven Gan, chief editor of - an Internet newspaper carrying alternative viewpoints - does complain of hard-ball campaign tactics going unreported.
But he too brought up the changed atmosphere and said he was especially surprised by the coverage accorded the Johor bribery allegations.
Two men have been detained for allegedly trying to bribe the Parti Islam SeMalayasia (PAS) candidate for the Pasir Raja state seat, Mr Sanip Ithnin, into withdrawing.
Yesterday, both the New Straits Times and The Star gave front-page treatment to the affair, leading with Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's call for a full investigation.
The more cynical might claim he had no choice, given his 'anti-corruption' platform.
But Dr Chandra noted that, 'if you want to demonstrate sincerity in fighting corruption, whatever affects your side should be given even more prominence than what affects the other side.
'It's a test, and it is remarkable that it got that sort of publicity.'
In the past, he noted, the matter might simply have been kept under wraps.
Then again, it must be acknowledged that the Internet has become an ever more important source of information.
On the mainstream side of things, The Star Online's server has had to cope with such a jump in traffic that things got slowed down, said Mr Wong, who expects even greater traffic in the next few days.
Meanwhile, has seen a doubling of its usual subscription rate.
And Harakah Daily, the Internet edition of the PAS party organ, registered 6.5 million hits yesterday, from five million on Tuesday.
When asked, Harakah editor Zulkifli Sulong acknowledged 'fairer' coverage by the mainstream media.
He added that 'one-sided' coverage in the past had turned off some readers.
But political analyst Ong Kian Ming, writing in The Star, cited the results of a survey that found 85 per cent of respondents did not rely on the Internet for political news and 87 per cent did not believe information obtained from the Internet.
According to the survey, conducted for The Star, 56 per cent believed news obtained from the media.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"