Nothing escapes us Netizens

In more mature markets, the newspapers are the forum for debate and analysis, while the Internet is the news hub, churning out updates.

By Karim Raslan (The Star)

THERE are two competing forces at work in our public life and, as anticipated, the contest between these two world views will come to dominate the Datuk Seri Na­­jib Tun Razak administration’s ap­­proach to the media, and indeed the entire civil liberties agenda.

On the one hand there is the carefully-managed world of the mainstream media. This approach reaches back to a long-held conviction among the Malaysian political establishment that the media should serve and indeed promote “national interests”.

Needless to say, this is a top-down and elitist approach. Furthermore, it reveals an underlying distrust and/or disregard for public sentiment and popular opinion.

At its simplest, it’s just another way of saying “we must lead because the people know no better”.

However, this viewpoint has been challenged both by the revolutionary changes in information technology as well as the population’s higher levels of education and exposure.

For many, including myself, “deve­lop­­mental journalism” is a highly questionable idea since it leads us into an intellectual cul-de-sac, a media deadend – in short, an environment where we are forced to swallow wholesale ministerial statements.

It also returns us to the situation at the height of the Mahathir era when the public was forced to read between the lines to figure out what was really going on in our country.

Similarly, “responsible reporting” as interpreted by our leaders also leaves most readers unconvinced, irritated and yearning for more.

So what happens? Well it’s straight-forward enough.

Instead of being satisfied, most of us are prompted to reach for the ubiquitous Internet to verify and double-check what we’ve just read.

For example, while I am relieved to discover that frequent by-elections are a “frightful” waste of money, I’m also perplexed and troubled by the near-total absence of contrarian views.

In this respect I have to thank former prime minister Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad for demolishing the argument with his characteristic bluntness.

However, as a citizen and a reader, I expect the news media to give choices (the pros and cons) so that I can make up my own mind.

Increasingly, in more mature me­­dia markets such as Europe and Ame­rica, the newspapers have become the forum for debate and analysis while the Internet has evolved into a news hub, churning out a stream of updates.

Which leads me very neatly to the crazy alternative to our mild-mannered and domesticated mainstream media, namely, the rambunctious and chaotic World Wide Web.

The Internet is democracy gone wild. It is unregulated and can, in certain instances, verge on the wholly insane.

Whatever the case, the user/consumer has to make his or her individual value judgments, hopefully dis­­­carding the feeble and ludicrous in favour of the genuine and sensible.

However, the “Wild Wild West” of news and views where fiction becomes fact and mere speculation the touchstone for the truth is strengthened by the continued government influence on the mainstream media.

Every so-called, discreet call to an editor from Putrajaya extracts a heavy toll on the public’s confidence in the mainstream media, sending people scurrying back to the Inter­net.

There is an important additional point to make here.

In the past people would have had to check the Internet on their desktop computers.

In physical terms it meant that we’d be unable to verify the news with alternative sources until we’d reached our desks and switched on our computers.

Now, with technology’s extraordinary advances, we can immediately counter-check what we read in the newspapers through our own WAP-enabled and/or Internet-ready hand-held devices.

Indeed, these devices are so heavily promoted that virtually all consumers know and want these products – such as Blackberries and iPhones. At the same time and for a lot of younger people the ritual of reading a newspaper in the morning has been supplanted by a quick scan through the media alerts and favourite websites.

Furthermore there’s an additional, interesting factoid about young voters.

It is estimated that the Internet penetration of Malaysian 18-21-year-olds is in the region of 70%-80%. This means that the vast majority of new and soon-to-be voters are highly familiar with alternatives to newspapers and TV.

Indeed, it’s arguable that for this sought-after section of the voting pu­­­­­blic, the alternative media may well have become the “mainstream”.

However, all is not lost and the alternative media still plays an important role in shaping and galvanising public opinion.

Indeed the growing fluency of Malaysians in various languages – most of us are bilingual if not tri- or quadri-lingual – means that what someone says in one language will be read across the nation within nanoseconds.

What does this mean? Well, as Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yasin discovered to his chagrin, an interview in the Malay-language daily Utusan gets picked up, analysed and critiqued by Malaysians of all persuasions.

In short, there are no “racial and linguistic silos” left and Malaysian leaders have to come to terms with the increasing openness of the media landscape, especially if they wish to win middle-of-the-road, middle-class Malaysians or all races, most of whom feel uncomfortable with language that is disrespectful to one community or another.

Whatever happens in the tussle between the conflicting views about civil liberties, we have to thank information technology for breaking down the barriers between the rulers and the ruled.

Finally, ladies and gentlemen, you may sit in your palaces and official residences but rest assured we’re watching and judging your every moves on our computer screens, our iPhones, our Nokias and Blackber­ries.

Nothing escapes us – the people of Malaysia – and nothing is sacred.