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Friday, September 05, 2008

Public critical of media content, want more independence

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 4 - A public survey commissioned by a media watchdog found that a significant majority of Malaysians want media independence, with close to half believing the mainstream media to be performing below the best of ethical standards.

Commissioned by Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) with funding from Friedrich Naumann Foundation, the survey was conducted by Merdeka Center for Opinion Research from 8 to 14 May 2008, through phone interviews with 1,203 Malaysians who were randomly and proportionally selected according to state of residence, ethnicity and sex. CIJ also received partial support from the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), based in Bangkok.

Eighty-seven percent of those polled would like to see changes leading to greater media independence: 26 percent wanted a more critical media, 23 percent thought a complaint mechanism was the best answer for the malaise affecting the media, while 19 percent wanted an enabling environment for media plurality.

However, 35 percent believed that the onus for media reform was on the government. Significantly, 79 percent were unaware of the role civil society organisations in promoting media independence. Seventy-eight percent agreed that media owners have a significant impact on content and may therefore be a hindrance to media independence. Half identified the government (53 percent of respondents) and people/companies connected to the government (15 percent) as the owners of most media outlets.

The survey revealed that Malaysians were critically assessing the content of the local mainstream media, upon which the majority relied heavily as sources of information.
Asked to rate the performance of the mainstream media according to six indicators— ethical, variety of opinions included, variety of issues covered, objectivity, fairness and truthfulness—only 56 percent said they were all met; the figure plummeted to 35 percent when it came to fairness of reporting.

Malaysians were also opposed to censorship of topics of public interest: Eighty percent thought coverage of outbreaks of diseases should not be censored, 69 percent felt strongly about exposing allegations/implications of corruption, 58 percent wanted reports of street demonstrations, and 48 percent did not think the identities of crime victims and criminals should be kept hidden. The only censorship that Malaysians overwhelmingly agreed to was on vulgarities, indecent pictures, and lurid and obscene details.

CIJ Executive Director Gayathry Venkiteswaran said that the survey pointed to the need to liberalise media control as media consumers are becoming more savvy. Referring also to an earlier study by CIJ and its partners, on election coverage by six publications, Gayathry said both studies reflected a consistent level of crisis in confidence in the traditional and big media houses.

Merdeka Center Director Ibrahim Suffian said that civil society organisations need further support in working for the interest of the public who, though open to and seemingly desiring of the ideal of media independence, still have vague understanding of the concept.

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