KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 15 — The Malaysian government, journalists and civil societies should watch for a shift to Beijing-friendly coverage from Umno-aligned news outlets if the party stays in power, said a report by US-based watchdog Freedom House.
In its Beijing’s Global Media Influence 2022 report, Freedom House said that Umno, and by extension, the coalition that it helms, Barisan Nasional (BN), have been relatively pro-China since the emergence of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal in 2015.
The report, which was released last week, said that this support was largely due to a need for investment resulting from the scandal.
“The China-financed East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) became a key campaign issue for Umno [in 2021].
“In December 2021, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob affirmed his support for Malaysia’s participation in the Belt and Road initiative (BRI) and the ECRL in particular,” it said.
To note, the BRI is a Chinese move to develop infrastructure across numerous countries along the historic Silk Road.
The report acknowledged that DAP has also exhibited pro-China behaviour, such as former finance minister Lim Guan Eng writing the foreword for the controversial comic book Belt and Road Initiative for Win-Winism that was banned in 2019.
Vulnerabilities to influence from China
In mentioning key vulnerabilities that Malaysian media has to China’s influence, the report noted that most Malaysian newspapers and public broadcaster — Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM) — are indirectly controlled by political parties or their allies.
“The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) is the largest shareholder for The Star, while Berita Harian and the New Straits Times are associated with Umno,” it said.
It also added that there is no law in Malaysia that regulates ownership of media by political parties or their affiliates.
This, it said, paves the way for pro-China politicians and ministers to censor media criticism of their allies in Beijing.
Furthermore, the report said that in some cases, proxy companies make it hard to determine who the actual owners of a media company are.
Nevertheless, the report noted that the Malaysian public in general was sceptical of pro-China narratives, especially in relation to the persecution of Uyghurs and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Politicians from both sides of the divide commonly criticise the Chinese government, it noted.
Additionally, it said that although some media outlets may source news stories regularly from Chinese state media, the same outlets also commonly republish news from international news agencies that are critical of China.
The report listed Malaysia as “Vulnerable”, giving Beijing’s media influence efforts here a score of 37 out of 85 (“High”), while local resilience and response was given a score of 35 out of 85 (“notable”).
According to the report, a score of zero denotes “least influence”, while a score of 85 denotes “most influence”.
The study was conducted in 30 countries, including US, the United Kingdom, Indonesia, the Philippines, and India with the help of at least one local researcher in each country, who conducted desk research and interviews with members of the media, government, and civil society.
The researchers then submitted responses to a questionnaire, where the responses determined proposed scores.