Imagine a world where every channel on TV is Fox News. To most Care2 readers, this probably sounds like an absurd nightmare. However, the truth is that this is actually the reality in the Southeast Asian country of Malaysia.
If you happen to tune into the Malaysian media for news about this week’s disputed election, you won’t see any coverage of potential voting irregularities and fraud. You won’t hear reporters repeating what people are whispering in the streets of Kuala Lumpur — that the election was stolen, that people were turned away from the polls, that fake ballots were brought in during recounts to change the results after the fact. That’s because the winning party, Barisan National, has been in power for more than 50 years, controlling both the newspapers and local TV.
In fact, the only source for news on the opposition coalition and the controversies surrounding the election is the Internet. While Malaysia censors books, magazines, newspapers, TV, and movies, they’ve mostly kept such efforts offline. (Although there are occasionally suspicious cyber attacks against high-profile independent news sites, the government denies official involvement.) The problem is, with Malaysian reporters carefully avoiding controversy, it’s almost impossible to sort out fact from fiction.
Even before the election itself, rumors of “phantom voters” started flying in the alternative press and across social media. The opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, accused BN of flying tens of thousands of foreign workers from neighboring countries and outfitting them with fake IDs in order to skew the vote. This probably isn’t true, but with mainstream media refusing to investigate, it’s hard for Ibrahim’s supporters to know what to believe.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that certain voting irregularities have actually been well-documented on social media. At the polls on Sunday, voters were supposed to have an index finger marked with indelible ink to prevent them from voting more than once. But hundreds of people posted pictures of the ink easily washing off with water, soap, or even being rubbed off with blades of grass.
The allegations just get worse from there. Some people showed up at their polling place to be told someone already voted using their name and ID. During the night of the election, there were blackouts in large parts of the capitol, and when the power came back on, BN had mysteriously been announced as the winner in those districts. In one neighborhood, Bangsar, a group of civilians clashed with police to try to stop them from bringing in extra ballot boxes while a recount was underway. The media has been totally silent about the event, even though videos are being passed around on Facebook and Twitter.
There is also a post going viral on social media alleging that the Election Commission knowingly allowed BN to bring in fake ballots after the first count was already made. This is an incredibly serious charge supposedly being made by an election official, yet the media has yet to confirm or deny this woman’s story.
Even the opposition protests are being swept under the rug. A protest rally in the capitol on Wednesday drew more than 120,000 people, yet the number reported in the papers is only 1,000. This despite the fact that there are photographs showing the massive crowd everywhere online, and some people were stuck in traffic for hours due to the size of the crowd.
This sort of media blackout may seem strange to readers in the rest of the developed world. Malaysia is a modern nation, with modern industry and conveniences, which desperately wants to compete economically on a global scale. So it’s certainly strange for an expat living in the country to see such a disconnect between what’s actually happening and the official story I see reported in the national and international media. And for a country which wants to demonstrate that it is on the road to Democracy, it’s more than a little depressing.
If BN wants to convince the Malaysian people that it won the election fairly, and that the election was held in an honest, open, and democratic manner, the media must be independent. Censoring the papers won’t make the opposition go away, it won’t stop the growing progressive movement in Malaysia, and it certainly won’t put an end to online rumors and misinformation. If anything, BN is fueling all three.
For readers in the rest of the world, this should serve as a sobering reminder of what happens when a nation doesn’t maintain a balanced, independent media.
Photo credit: Thinkstock