By Collins Chong Yew Keat
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia-May 3 is the World Press Freedom Day. It remains highly relevant and ever more critical not only to the world in terms of maintaining the freedom to have the liberty to unbiased reporting and news and in upholding human rights and norms, but ever more pertinent in the case of Malaysia.
External influence on our media has been an open secret, but understanding of it remains subdued and ignores the disturbing extent of messaging and influencing efforts by Beijing.
Malaysia is placed as the 10th country most influenced by China by China Index, a database relaunched on December 8, 2022 by DoubleThink Labs.
This study that measures Beijing’s expanding global sway mentioned our links to and dependency on Beijing, in terms of foreign and domestic policy, technology, and the economy make us particularly susceptible to Chinese influence.
In compiling the China Index, the research team focused on nine categories to track influence around the world including higher education, domestic politics, economic ties, foreign policy, law enforcement, media, military cooperation, cultural links, and technology.
For Malaysia, the trade dependence remains the deepest stumbling block to future comprehensive risk patterns and policy independence and flexibility.
Trade and investment were an early impetus for Beijing’s global sway, but Chinese influence in foreign policy, local media, and increasingly in defence and security has been the predominant pursuit with ripple effects seen throughout, especially in Malaysia.
The latest Freedom House Report of 2022 has highlighted the extent and impact of the global Chinese media reach, including Malaysia, in which we are ranked as ‘High’. The intensity of Beijing’s media influence efforts was designated as High or Very High in 16 of the 30 countries examined in the study.
Mass distribution of Beijing-backed content via mainstream media, harassment and intimidation of outlets that publish news or opinions disfavored by the Chinese government, and the use of cyberbullying, fake social media accounts, and targeted disinformation campaigns are among the tactics that have been employed more widely since 2019.
The Chinese government, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, is accelerating a massive campaign to influence media outlets and news consumers around the world.
For Malaysia, the Freedom House report highlighted sustained Chinese efforts. Chinese state narratives in Malaysia follow the standard Chinese propaganda package: a mixture of rapport building, positive promotion of China and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) governance model, and counter narrative to international criticism, particularly from the United States.
The report pointed out the strong influence on Chinese-language media, including via disinformation where it states that 90 percent of the country’s Chinese-language media is owned by a Chinese-Malaysian tycoon with strong business interests in China.
The editorial lines of these outlets are accordingly dominated by pro- Beijing narratives and Chinese-language media publish less on politically sensitive topics compared to their English and Malay counterparts. Global Chinese-language disinformation campaigns have penetrated Chinese diaspora media in Malaysia on topics like pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
It is reported that there are reprisals for critical reporting and the pursuit of self-censorship, wary that critical reporting may result in retribution or harm bilateral ties.
As stated in the report’s future trajectory of Beijing's influence, the narratives on the South China Sea would be made a key parameter. As tensions continue to grow over territorial issues in the South China Sea, local media have been careful to not villainize China while still respecting local sentiments toward Malaysia’s territories.
The report opines that Beijing or some local actors may in turn feel the need to apply greater pressure on media owners and journalists to support Beijing’s position or avoid critical reporting.
Efforts to discredit evidence of mass detentions in Xinjiang and other atrocities by the Chinese government against Uyghurs are common, portraying itself as respecting religious freedoms.
Direct and exclusive chat groups were created with journalists in the efforts to communicate directly the views and intent of Beijing, apart from holding closed sessions with the media on issues including Xinjiang.Distorted content including outright disinformation from Chinese state media and other pro-CCP outlets reached Chinese-language media in Malaysia.
One prime example includes the extensive criticisms by Chinese state media of Hong Kong’s 2019-2020 pro-democracy movement where some of them are based on false claims, and are replicated by our mainstream Chinese language media.
Chinese state presence on television and social media has been extensive, with self-censorship being rampant in the media fraternity for the fear of Chinese reprisal especially in the threat of pulling off advertisement and pressure exerted on the management of the media outlets.
These strategies are pervasive and in-depth: from partnering with local broadcasters to supporting publications of Malay language contents and books portraying Chinese culture and history from the Chinese perspective, including Malay translations of Chinese contents.
Subsidised journalist trips to Xinjiang with the hope of projecting a new narrative and perspective on the issue have been regularly organised, with notable impact on the outline and direction of reporting with the hope of capturing the buy-in from the public, especially the Muslim community.
China’s has elicited political support and has even tightened its grip, with both sides of the political spectrum having been ingrained with the inevitability of seeing China as too critical in economic security and for local regime security, with both sides trying to win over Chinese favour and in toeing the line of Beijing in presenting China friendly narratives and justifications in their policy and approach.
The report also highlighted inadequate government responses leaving the country vulnerable to Chinese efforts. The decline in press freedom and gaps in media regulations have reduced democratic resilience and created greater opportunities for future CCP media influence operations.
In 23 countries, political leaders launched attacks on domestic media or exploited legitimate concerns about CCP influence to impose arbitrary restrictions, target critical outlets, or fuel xenophobic sentiment.
The report also pointed out disinformation campaigns that have gained intensity, with Malaysia being at the epicentre of a couple of major Chinese-language and pro-Beijing disinformation campaigns who take their repetitious material directly from Chinese-language content farms.
A 2020 Atlantic Council report found that some of these farms were based in Malaysia and target Malaysian audiences, where in one farm nicknamed “Qiqu,” it hosted content that closely tracked with Chinese government talking points and was distributed across Chinese-language Facebook accounts and pages that focus on Malaysian politics.
Critical pieces and coverage on China and on the issue of Xinjiang and Taiwan, among many others, have been met with displeasure and pressure to restrain. Some media practitioners have pointed out that local Chinese media used to be “freer” before Media Chinese International (MCIL) started buying up these outlets in 2008.
Editorial boards and their authority have always played a key role in determining the content and the direction of the content reporting. These remain critical in ensuring that there is no external pressure or influence in determining the decision making in the content and reports.
In providing an open, fair and balanced reporting, there has to be a moral obligation and responsibility in providing the audience with the freedom and openness of access to the whole spectrum of arguments and the assessment of the issue at hand.
It is not a secret that a large part of the local media landscape has its hands tied by the fear of repercussions in all angles should it proceed to extend coverage in sensitive areas that are deemed to be critical of China or detrimental to the economic or business ties between the two.
Critical opinion pieces on China, our policy with Beijing or China’s strategic agenda in the region and the country have mostly been censored or snubbed altogether, even pulled. There have been overwhelming pro-Beijing pieces and voices in the media, whether in print or otherwise.
It does not take an ignorant person to sense the predominant pro-China sentiments and anti-West disdain in the media, from the authors to the readers.
Only a handful and rare media institutions have the independence and audacity in reporting on the truth and in giving balanced and truthful assessments and views on anything China related, in a climate of overwhelming China pandering and pro-China narratives in our local media and public discourse.
Growing concerns and fears can be seen in other spheres of potential vulnerabilities and risks in the digital realm.
China-based companies do not have a presence in Malaysia’s digital television infrastructure, but other firms with close ties to the CCP have been gaining a presence in the social media and mobile phone sectors, from Huawei to TikTok, in creating potential vulnerability to future manipulation.
A true adherence to the spirit of national identity, sovereignty and integrity will mean complete liberalisation from fear and threats from external influence and pressure and full autonomy of rights to dictate our own policies and paths of progress in securing our interests and sovereignty.
Have we been able to independently chart our own course without the pressure and influence from external players? The reality reflects otherwise, and we have been largely at the mercy of external demands that require our acceptance of some form of adherence and quid pro quo in exchange of assurances and meeting urgent internal needs.
Growing sentiments locally, especially among the Malaysian Chinese populace, of equating criticisms of China as part of the West’s containment efforts and deemed as nonsensical and hypocritical have further created an apt cycle of ignorance and risks involved.
Domino effects seen in various countries at the receiving end of this engulfment and penetration of influence, from port takeovers to political and media sway, should warrant enough alarm and apprehension. Policymakers are in full awareness of our dilemma but it takes more than political will to reimagine a new direction in our orientation.
The Freedom House report concluded that there were steady Chinese government's media influence efforts in Malaysia. Perhaps the silver lining is that there is still considerable public wariness and awareness on Chinese propagandistic efforts to sway opinions, as found out in the report.
It aptly called for long-term democratic resilience.
Governments, media outlets, civil society, and technology firms all have a role to play in enhancing democratic resilience in the face of increasingly aggressive CCP influence efforts.
Our current contextual need and demand of economic dependence and trade ties require that we keep our status quo, in ensuring our short-term goals are met, at the potential expense of our long-term interests.
*Collins Chong Yew Keat is with Universiti Malaya, focuses on internationalisation and strategic management.*
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