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From Our Correspondent: Malaysia's Media
How much are they trusted?
By SANTHA OORJITHAM

November 15, 2000
Web posted at 5:00 p.m. Hong Kong time, 5:00 a.m. EDT


The 1990 and 1999 general elections were watershed years for the opposition in Malaysia. The emergence of two overlapping opposition coalitions in the former and one unified opposition coalition in the latter helped the parties win more seats in Parliament. Malaysian academics are now analyzing media coverage and credibility in both years — and some interesting trends have emerged.

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Not surprisingly, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition got the greatest share of coverage in both the 1990 and 1999 campaigns, though space given to opposition news by the English and Chinese media increased in the latter. What is surprising is the results of surveys on the credibility of political news in the local media. In 1999, radio ranked first, followed by newspapers and TV. But in April this year, TV got the highest rating, followed by print and radio (almost tied) while the Internet (not covered in the 1990 survey) finished a poor last. Analysis of the results by race shows that Malay respondents now believe less in all three mainstream media than 10 years ago. During the last polls, at least half of Malays voted for the opposition.

In 1990, two new opposition coalitions — the Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah (United Islamic Movement) and the Gagasan Rakyat (People's Might) — were bridged by Semangat '46 (Spirit of '46, the year in which the dominant United Malays National Organization was founded) under the leadership of Kelantan prince Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, a former UMNO vice president who had unsuccessfully challenged Premier Mahathir Mohamad for the party presidency in 1987. The combined opposition managed to win 35 seats in Parliament (up from 29 in 1986). BN's seats dropped from 148 to 127 and its share of the votes declined from 57.3% in 1986 to 52% in 1990. In the 1999 polls, when it faced the Barisan Alternatif (BA) opposition coalition, BN's share of the vote fell to 56% (from 65% in 1995) and its seats dropped from 162 to 148.

Prof. Syed Arabi Idid of the International Islamic University of Malaysia's Department of Communication has been analyzing media coverage of the past three polls (1990, 1995 and 1999) and is publishing a new edition of his book Agenda Setting: The Role of the Media in Elections. (It was first published in 1994. This edition will include the last two polls.) Over the past decade, he has noted a trend for the majority of the coverage to focus on the BN — and to be positive. During the 1990 campaign, Malay media published 494 items on BN election news, 404 on opposition news and 276 on other election-related news. In the recent campaign, the Malay media had 426 items on the BN, 411 on the opposition Barisan Alternatif and 285 on other election-related news. Chinese and English media coverage of opposition news rose slightly compared to 10 years ago, notes Chang Peng Kee, Syed Arabi's former research assistant. Syed Arabi also noted more items on the elections in 1999 than in previous years, "maybe because there was more interest because of the Anwar issue, and maybe because competition between the newspapers was also greater."

Most interesting were surveys on media credibility. In 1990, 9% of the 782 Malays interviewed trusted "very much" the political news they heard on the radio; 78% said they trusted it "much." For newspapers, the figures were 10.7% and 73.8%, respectively. TV came last with 13.4% and 73.1%. The positions of the three media changed in the recent April survey. Malays trusted all of them less, with 5.3% of the 398 interviewed believing "very much" what TV reported and 63.8% believing "much." Newspapers and radio almost tied and the Internet (a new category) came last.

What do the results of these surveys indicate about the media's role in agenda setting during elections? "More coverage and more positive coverage on the BN doesn't mean more votes for those parties," reckons Syed Arabi. "Most people had already decided which party they would vote for before Nomination Day." And people do not just depend on mainstream sources. "They can also get information from alternative media such as party newspapers and by attending ceramahs (lectures)." But, he says, fence-sitters could have been affected by media coverage during the campaign. "They would have looked at the candidates and looked at the trends."

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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