Malaysia’s 13th General Election (GE13), held on the 5th of May 2013, was the continuation of a historical arc that begun at the 2008 general election (GE12), when the Barisan Nasional (BN), Malaysia’s ruling coalition for the past fifty-six years, lost the states of Penang and Selangor (and Perak temporarily) to the Opposition, as well as their coveted two-thirds Parliamentary majority. This was an unexpected shock to the system that immediately plunged Malaysia into an anticipatory political fervour. After 5 years of delays, civil unrest, and an increasingly unified opposition, with their term stretched to the far edge of expiration (and several state assemblies pushed beyond this point), BN failed to counter Pakatan Rakyat’s (PR) message of ‘Ini Kali Lah!’, returning their worst result ever. The BN not only failed to recover a two-thirds majority in Parliament but lost the popular vote for the first time, with only 47.38% support compared to PR’s 50.87%.
The anticipation and tension leading up to and extending beyond GE13 (with widespread accusations of electoral fraud and BN retaining power through systemic gerrymandering and malapportionment), was apparent not just within civil society but also within academia, surely going down as not just the most anticipated but the most researched election in Malaysian history. Non-governmental organisations, too, were on high alert, with extensive scrutiny of electoral processes and authorities. One of the main areas of interest and contention in political, academic, activist, and civil society alike was that of media bias.
The ‘Watching the Watchdog’ GE13 media monitoring project, a collaboration between the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus’s Centre for the Study of Communications & Culture (CSCC) and the Malaysian Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), brought together the intersecting goals of data-based media freedom advocacy and critical media and politics research. With much of Malaysia’s mediascape controlled by BN and its constituent parties through a combination of political/regulatory mechanisms (most notably, the Printing Presses and Publications Act and the Sedition Act), and the economic domination and control that exists in a state of symbiosis with these regressive and often selectively-mobilised pieces of legislation, most Malaysians have resigned themselves to newspapers and television news broadcasts full of what is best described as ‘running dog’ journalism, with little of the ‘watchdog’ functionality one expects from a free and independent media.
Several scholars, notably those from the Universiti Sains Malaysia School of Communication, have delineated the political-economic power structures behind this state of affairs (e.g. Mustafa & Zaharom, 1998; Wang, 2001; Zaharom, 2002), and there has been content analysis carried out at both the academic level (e.g. Abbott, 2011) and by NGOs (such as CIJ’s previous monitoring exercises) in an attempt to map the extent of the actually-occurring political bias in the Malaysian media. However, these content analyses have been relatively limited in scope and/or conducted at the article level.