The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) is greatly concerned by the news that two media groups in Malaysia may be merging.
Newspaper reports on 28 and 29 November said the New Straits Times Press (NSTP) is planning to acquire Utusan Melayu to forge a strong alliance between its Malay-language newspapers, “Berita Harian” and “Utusan Malaysia”, respectively.
According to local business weekly “The Edge”, a market research house said this would mark the largest print media consolidation in the Malay print industry.
Both the Utusan group and NSTP were reportedly unavailable for comment. When queried by the local stock exchange, they merely said they were exploring options to enhance shareholders’ value, with no firm plans reached as yet.
At this juncture, SEAPA would like to stress that media companies should not be viewed purely as business entities with profitability as their overriding goal. Their social responsibility, unlike that of any other corporate entity, is a greater and especially crucial one of providing the people with a public platform through which the right of free expression is effectively exercised in a democracy.
Thus, most troubling to democracy in this potential merger is the monopolisation of information and political influence.
The merger will put UMNO, the dominant Malay-based ruling party which owns 50.46% of Utusan Melayu, as the direct owner of most local media, through joint ownership with Media Prima Bhd.
Utusan Melayu has another Malay-language newspaper “Kosmo!” and a stable of magazines under its group, while Media Prima holds 32.94% of NSTP, and broadcast stations TV3, ntv7, 8TV, Channel 9, Fly FM and Hot FM.
NSTP also owns English-language newspapers “New Straits Times” and “Malay Mail”, as well as another Malay newspaper “Harian Metro”.
With UMNO at the top of this chain, controlling almost all channels of information, the media landscape does not look promising as regards diversity of opinion. As it is, the government-controlled media have a poor record in allowing the exchange of opinions, ideas and information.
The fact that Malaysia is a multiethnic society of diverse cultures and voices makes it all the more important to ensure that there is no media monopoly, particularly by the dominant ruling party. Given that media ownership in Malayisa has been documented to have a definite influence on editorial policies and content, such a monopoly may lead to further marginalisation of dissenting voices.
As such, SEAPA shares the concern of our local partner, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), that the potential merger will deal a serious blow to freedom of expression in Malaysia, which is already highly restricted by laws.
In a 29 November media release, CIJ said the merger would “erode completely” what little plurality of expression there is. CIJ’s full statement is available here: http://www.cijmalaysia.org
“It is also worrying to us that the government encourages concentration in media ownership,” the communication rights organisation said, pointing to the recent sale by Chinese-based ruling party MCA of its stake in Nanyang Press to tycoon Tiong Hiew King, resulting in the latter owning four major Chinese-language newspapers.
SEAPA joins CIJ in reiterating its call on the Malaysia government to repeal the licensing provision in the Printing Presses and Publications Act and set up a Parliamentary Select Committee on media freedom.
The Malaysia government is the direct or indirect owner of almost all local media.
Besides six state-owned radio stations and two TV stations under national broadcaster Radio Television Malaysia, ruling political parties such as UMNO control the Utusan Group and is closely allied to media conglomerate Media Prima Bhd.
MCA, through its investment arm Huaren, owns Star Publications, which owns English newspaper “The Star”, various magazines, and radio stations FM 988 and Red FM. It now holds a 20% stake in Nanyang Press, which publishes Chinese newspapers “Nanyang Siang Pau” and “China Press”.
Indian-based ruling party MIC has close affiliations with owners of major Tamil newspapers “Tamil Nesan” and “Malaysian Nanban”.