July 13, 2010
Market forces safeguard against abuses
By Karim Raslan
THE Governments refusal to renew the printing permits of two newspapers aligned to Pakatan Rakyat has raised the issue of press freedom once again.
I have long disagreed with the current licensing regime. Market forces, combined with certain guidelines on the coverage of certain divisive issues (most importantly race, religion) are the best safeguard against the abuses.
Malaysians are actually quite conservative. While we may like sensationalistic news we place a high value on honesty and decency. Any publication that is patronising, untruthful or biased will certainly witness a drop in circulation figures in an open market.
Instead of trying to control the press, the authorities should leave that to the people who really matter the readers themselves.
In the present environment, the online-based media has become increasingly popular. The best way to counter the growth and supposed lies of the former is to allow our newspapers and TV/radio stations greater flexibility and independence.
Until that happens, Malaysians will keep relying on the blogs and websites for their news and analysis. Thats the reality, like it or not.
Its very painful as a writer to survey the state of the Malaysian media. This is especially so when I compare it to Indonesias much freer and definitely more vibrant scene.
The greater openness in Jakarta also assists in providing greater transparency and accountability of government. In short, media freedom has helped keep the politicians honest.
The best example I can give is the newspaper Kompas. With a circulation of over 500,000 daily (and over 600,000 at the weekend), it recently celebrated its 45th ! anniver sary.
I first encountered Kompas 15 years ago, when I started visiting Jakarta. A copy was on the breakfast table in my hosts house. In those days, it was a far slimmer, text-heavy newspaper.
Still I was intrigued. From the little that I could understand at the time, Kompas seemed very intellectual so much so that it was sometimes difficult to figure what they were trying to say. They seemed to have perfected the Javanese art of circulocution.
Still, I was impressed and I vowed to myself that Id be able read the whole paper one day. Well, it took me a decade-and-a-half but I can now read Kompas from cover to cover though at times I still have to turn to a dictionary.
Actually, Kompas has become my guide to Indonesia. Its provided me with a wide range of views and perspectives. For a start, Kompas is avowedly plural and multi-religious. The result is an ethos that is both open-minded and fiercely secular.
Kompas also devotes substantial resources to covering the lesser-known parts of the republic including expeditions to Papua and along the Solo, Musi and Ciliwung rivers.
Indeed, these journeys are almost an exercise in nation-building since Kompas uses its editorial muscle and enormous wealth to highlight parts of Indonesia (especially in the poorer, less-developed East such as Nusa Teng-gara Timur) that are generally forgotten.
At the same time, the papers focus on grassroots leaders, activists, artists and academics has helped me gauge the richness of Indonesias public life. I especially like the way local community leaders are singled out and profiled. This iconisation of ordinary, decent men and women is always enlightening.
Furthermore, its writings on public issues and scandals are bold and uncompromisingly independent. No one is spared regardless of his or her political affiliations or lack thereof.
As Anies Baswedan, a prominent opinion-maker and academic says: Whatever Kompas covers will end up driving the debate ! among th e elite, and shaping policy-making.
While the paper is very serious its mandatory reading for all senior civil servants and businessmen and politicians there is also a vein of wry humour that lightens the heavy tone.
I especially like the papers healthy disregard for the political elite. Its never slavish. Indeed it often buries coverage of the president deep inside the paper. This reinforces the newspapers credibility and integrity.
Human capital has been important to Kompas success. Its founder and owner is a gentleman called Jakob Oetama with a shock of white hair and a magisterial presence. Indeed, Pak Jakob has heralded the paper through good times and bad, such as when it was briefly banned by Suharto in 1978.
However, one wonders if Kompas can maintain its standing in the long-run. After a major revamp a few years ago, the paper seems to have lost some of its weightiness and taken on a brighter, more contemporary feel.
Also, Jakob is not getting younger and theres no guarantee that his successors will have the same force of character or independence of mind.
At the same juncture Kompas Gramedia, the broader group, has become a successful conglomerate expanding beyond the media into retail and hospitality.
Still, papers like Kompas play an important role in Indonesias public life. Principled and outspoken, they have helped provide stability and good governance, rather than cause chaos. As Ive said time and again, there are many things we can learn from Indonesia.www.thestar.com
Letter & Opinion From Joe Public