The Pulau Batu Puteh Predicament: A Preliminary Study of Malaysian Media Coverage
Azliana Abdul Aziz, Vilashini Somiah, Azizah Hamzah
& Mohd Yahya Mohamed Ariffin
The media plays a very significant role in keeping diplomatic ties between countries strong. The media is strongly responsible for covering issues as ethically and as unbiased as possible in order to deliver the news right. In May of 2008, the International Court of Justice had ruled that Singapore would be given sovereignty over Pulau Batu Puteh (also known in English as Pedra Branca), ending the 28-year old territorial dispute between Malaysia and Singapore over the isle no larger than half a football field. Though the verdict brought about much mixed reactions from both parties, this research will only focus on the Malaysian news coverage given on the issue. The methodology for this research will be a qualitative one, in which the researchers will conduct interviews with relevant parties as well as evaluate random sampling of news materials that focused on the Pulau Batu Puteh incident in 2008. The researchers also aim to investigate how mediated political issues are presented and how it can affect its readers from Malaysia and Singapore alike.
Key words: Malaysia-Singapore news, political communication, Pulau Batu Puteh
The issue of sovereignty over Pedra Branca or Pulau Batu Puteh (literally meaning ‘White Rock’), an island with an area of about 8,560 square metres, between Malaysia and Singapore, crystallized on 14th February 1980. The issue of sovereignty was brought to attention when Singapore protested against the publication in 1979 by Malaysia of a map depicting the island as lying within Malaysia’s territorial waters. 13 years later, on the 6th February 1993 it was followed up by the dispute as to sovereignty over Middle Rocks and South Ledge. This dispute was then brought to the International Court of Justice (The ICJ) to be settled. The only form of development found on this island located between the Singapore Straits and South China Sea is the Horsburgh Lighthouse, built by the British somewhere between 1850 and 1851 without seeking consent from any party as Malaya was under ruling of the British.
Both countries made endless efforts to stake their claim over Pulau Batu Puteh. Ralph Haller-Trost (1993) wrote in his book Historical legal claims: a study of disputed sovereignty over Pulau Batu Puteh (Pedra Branca), that Malaysia had historically tried to prove that the island belonged to them for almost 400 years.
Pulau Batu Puteh and Middle Rocks
“Malaysia argued that the Sultan of Johore had exercised sovereignty over the rock since 1513 when the Johore-Riau-Lingga Sultanate was founded by Sultan Mahmud…According to the Malaysian view, based on the Theory of State Succession, Pulau Batu Puteh belongs to the Federation of Malaysia because it was part of the Federation of Malaya into which in turn the sultanate of Johore was amalgamated when it joined the newly formed independent state in 1957” (Haller-Trost, 1993).
However, Singapore claimed that the presence of the Horsburgh Lighthouse, built by the British, was enough to prove that the island belonged to them. Singapore was entitled to inherit everything that was left behind after independence.
“Singapore on the other hand, maintains that it has full territorial sovereignty and jurisdiction over the rock due to the Anglo-Dutch Treaty, and of the HEIC (Honourable East India Company) whose legal successor Singapore is-had built a lighthouse thereon and maintained it since 1851. No government authority (neither Johore nor Malaysia) had up to 1979 objected against this status, or had made any claim to the contrary. It therefore considers the rock being legally part of its territory” (Haller-Trost, 1993).
On the 23rd of May 2008, after a 29-year territorial dispute, the ICJ ruled that Pedra Branca was under Singapore’s sovereignty. In the official press release by the ICJ handed out on the very same day, it was mentioned “The Court finds that Singapore has sovereignty over Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh; that Malaysia has sovereignty over Middle Rocks; and that sovereignty over South Ledge belongs to the State in the territorial waters of which it is located.” (cite ICJ press release) The ruling in which decides the exact sovereignty of South Ledge has yet to be resolved.
The ICJ went on to explain that the reason for their decision was based on the fact that “Malaysia did not respond to Singapore’s conduct on the island, including the flying of its ensign, except for the republic’s installation of naval communication equipment”. (Site the star three reasons why island went to sing). The ICJ also pointed out that the Johor authorities and their successors took no action at all on the island beginning June 1850 for the whole of the following century onwards.
Distance from Pulau Batu Puteh and Singapore and Malaysia respectively
Objective of study
This paper looks into the coverage given by the Malaysian press on the debate over the sovereignty of Pulau Batu Puteh/ Pedra Branca and its subsequent referral to the ICJ, focusing more so on written articles either printed or online. The reporting was inspected for the utilisation of the media for diplomatic or political motive, seeing as the long-standing territorial dispute offered a prime opportunity to employ the media as a political or diplomatic instrument on top of its original role of informing the public.
In undergoing this research two forms of communication were mainly utilised in the analysis of the Malaysian media coverage concerning the dispute. The first of which, being that of mediated political communication and secondly the form of mediated diplomatic communication or media diplomacy (Gilboa, 2002). All the articles looked into during the course of this research were scrutinised for evidence of media diplomacy, the extent of its usage and what it entails.
Firstly, the characteristics of political communication is defined in terms of the intentions of its senders (McNair, 2003)
“The crucial factor that makes communication ‘political’ is not the source of a message [or we might add referring back to their earlier emphasis on ‘public discussion’, its form] but its content and purpose” (Denton & Woodward, 1990)
McNair (2003) also establishes that a democratic media is needed in order to achieve objectivity in mediated political discourse. A democratic media must inform, educate on the significance or meaning of the facts, provide a platform for public discourse for ‘public opinion’ to emerge and later generate that opinion back to the public, who should be made available to information regarding those in power (the acts of whoever in supreme power made available for public scrutiny) and finally serve as a channel for the advocacy of political viewpoints.
Mediated political communications have of late, grown vastly in importance and poses as a substantial influencing medium towards public opinion. Seemingly it is the precise fact that opinions form the core of political communications that presents problems in objectivity (Bennet & Entman, 2001). However, from surveys held through audience analysis, it may be concluded that though broadcast coverage may contribute in a small way towards viewers’ preference of political candidates, it is the level of knowledge and personal interest in politics that an individual has, that ultimately governs his/her opinions (Traudt, 2005).
This brings us to the question of objectivity. Though it is often debated that complete objectivity could be something of an impossible task, as more often than not a writer’s personality or views will unconsciously be reflected within the written script, the attempt at writing objectively, putting forth facts without favouring a certain side of an argument or ellipsing information to elicit mediation, is still a task that many journalists strive to undertake. The result, is an, if not completely objective report, a report which endeavours to put forth uncensored factual information.
Journalism in Malaysia and Singapore has always been conceived to be restricted, and this year, they have held very close positions in the freedom of press rankings. In the eyes of the world, press freedom for both countries is seen as controlled and constricting. Ranking at number 143 and 145 respectively, out of 195 countries in the 2009 Freedom of Press World Ranking (Freedom House) with the bottom 64 countries, considered as having no press freedom, it is an obvious conclusion that the rest of the world views the freedom of press for both countries as severely lacking. This is a result of the legal boundaries upon both nations’ media, and these same boundaries can be seen most diligently observed in political reporting.
An alternative to the mainstream media is through the medium of new media, such as political blogs and online news groups. For Malaysia, this has proved to be promising, as recent findings from a Freedom House survey that charted the online freedom of fifteen selected countries, stated that Malaysian online freedom is ‘partly-free’ obtaining a moderate rating of 40 with a rating of 0 being completely free and 100 being not free (Freedom House).
Eytan Gilboa (2002), in the article Global Communication and Foreign Policy, has devised a table to illustrate the four different types of actors, called the ‘Taxonomy of Actors and Concepts’.
Source: Gilboa, 2002
Here, Gilboa formulised a systematic approach to analysing global communication by breaking it up into different categories of actors and its specific role. In completing this research, Gilboa’s theories were adopted and transplanted to cover the geographically smaller context of Malaysia and Singapore. With the Malaysian media, due to the constraints of the law, it is not possible for the mainstream to adopt the role of the controlling actor, where the media acts independently and has the power to swing public opinion and pressure government into acting as they believe fit (Gilboa, 2002). Online media may have the freedom to mildly tread in those waters but they do not command as much public attention as does the mainstream. In the case of Pulau Batu Puteh, the media generally emulated the role of the instrumental actor, following the concept of media diplomacy (Gilboa, 2002).
Media diplomacy has been defined as the ‘uses of the media by leaders to express interest in negotiation, to build confidence and to mobilise public support for agreements’ (Gilboa, 2002). In the press coverage of Pulau Batu Puteh, most if not all of the information broadcast had been received from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or during press conferences at negotiations between the two countries. There were even articles published in the newspapers written by the diplomatic players themselves. Most notably, one that was written by the then Minister of Foreign Affairs himself, Dato’ Seri Utama Dr.Rais Yatim (2008).
In order to go deeper into the reporting from both the mainstream media and its new media counterpart, an interview was conducted with a sample practitioner of citizen journalism and the Media Secretary for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who was virtually the gatekeeper for all that was reported in the mainstream media. As mentioned earlier, most of the work was carried out on written articles as this is only a research paper, and it would prove to be an insufficient vehicle if all other forms of broadcast were to be incorporated instead of conducting only textual analysis.
Coverage on the long-standing dispute was extensive, and in the days leading up to the verdict, there was at least one article per day regarding the situation. However the vast majority of what was reported from each of the big four newspapers in Malaysia, New Straits Times (NST), The Star, Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian, was mainly reiterated facts drummed in again and again and did not vary by way of content from one news desk to the next. This in turn, led to the conclusion that information from all was obtained from only one source.
The mainstream media was also an instrumental tool in promoting relations between the two countries by giving exposure on the negotiations between both countries and the joint committee put together prior to the verdict to facilitate negotiations once the right to sovereignty was concluded. To assist in the research, articles on the event were divided into three sections. The first covers the period before the verdict, the second nearing the date of the verdict and the deliberations by ICJ and the third covering the post-hearing period. Press interest was at its height in the second section with coverage of the first and third on a somewhat equal status.
A pattern swiftly emerged upon the division of the articles. It was noted that the tone or morale of the information extended was significantly more positive and confident during the first period with article titles claiming ‘Rais confident of positive verdict over Batu Puteh’ and ‘Verdict over Pulau Batu Puteh will be in our favour’. Nearing the verdict however, a more tentative approach was adopted, where reports were published on negotiations and the establishment of a joint committee between the two countries to handle all actions pertaining to the territory in question (Zakaria Abdul Wahab, Singapore, Malaysia Will Accept Any Decision On Pulau Batu Puteh By ICJ – George Yeo, 2008) (Batu Putih: Malaysia – Singapura tubuh jawatankuasa bersama, 2008). Immediately after the verdict however, there was an attempt to draw focus to the fact that Malaysia had soverignty of Middle Rocks whilst downplaying the loss of Pulau Batu Puteh, by claiming it to be a win-win situation (Rais: Decision on island is a win-win situation, 2008) and rallying public support by suggesting expanditure of said island (New Dimension to Middle Rocks, 2008).
When asked as to the nature of the pattern and whether or not it was a deliberate diplomatic tactic, Edward Jules Savarimuthu, Media Secretary to the Foreign Minister of Malaysia and Media Strategist for the Pulau Batu Puteh case, claimed that, “There was no deliberate strategy that was tabled to preserve the good relations with our contesting neighbour back then. It just came out directy from the stove as fast as it was cooked, in reference to the media strategy” however he also acknowledged that, “we [Malaysia] came mid-stream when the case was already upstream, so much of what went around came in various level of deflection or rather deception. It was purely a case of “if you can’t convince them, confuse them“” in reference to deflecting negative press in the aftermath of the hearing (Savarimuthu, 2009).
However following the verdict, there was a brief period before the press continued its role in media diplomacy in early June, where criticism of the government’s administration of the case was broadcast to the public. These articles attributed the loss to the negligence of the Malaysian government and the Johor State in the past. The more condemning of these articles were those that appeared online, claiming Malaysia was lackadaisical in exercising their rights (Savarimuthu, 2009). These examples show evidence of the Malaysian media’s ability to take on the role of ‘constraining actor’, where “global news coverage may disrupt the routine policy making process … and whereas leaders may have to reorder priorities, they don’t feel forced to follow a particular policy called for by the media or implied by coverage” (Gilboa, 2002). In this case it merely means that the Malaysian media, primarily new media, is able to influence in some way the future conduct of its government. The advantage of online news as an advocate of the role of ‘constraining actor’ lies in its swiftness as “global communication constrains the policy process primarily through the high speed of broadcasting and transmitting information” (Gilboa, 2002).
At times though, the online news channels are considered to be a threat to national peace “since it can cast doubts on the integrity and reliability of its personnel and those in high office” (Savarimuthu, 2009) in the instance of the Pulau Batu Puteh incident however, this can be considered to be a moot point as there was very little information on the case made public to explain the loss of the island. “Malaysia did not handle the case as per expected. Singapore had, from the start, the expertise and documents that Malaysia did not have. Had we known this from the media, we would have been able to understand better” (Somiah, 2009).
Regarding the issue, and its subsequent media attention, it can be concluded that the role of the Malaysian media was predominantly, through ‘media diplomacy’ with a brief vignette as the ‘constraining actor’ played mostly via new media. In order for the Malaysian media both mainstream and otherwise to grow to encompass both controlling and constraining actor roles, the tightly drawn strings of the law must first be loosened. However, this begets a whole slew of debates and diatribes from the two camps, those who believe the country is ready and those who deem it still immature.
In reference to the ‘media diplomacy’ portrayed during the Pulau Batu Puteh predicament, from the articles collected, in depth information regarding the islet, especially historical facts prior to the year 1979, which held most of the damning evidence that lead to the loss was not made public. Though it can be argued that the information was highly classified as it was still an ongoing court hearing, (Savarimuthu, 2009) the information was still kept under wraps after the hearing was over, and the allusions to the 1953 letter from the Johor Sultanate mirrors the instances when the media or political figures referr to the May 13 incident. An occurance everybody knows about but few know what it really is. In this respect, both interviewees agreed on one point that “there is a very thin line between diplomacy and hypocrisy” (Savarimuthu, 2009)
There is a very grey area between keeping the information on a need-to-know basis and deliberately withholding intelligence from the public. For the media to practice diplomatic communication successfully and still adhere to the journalistic codes, it is imperative that the truth and abundance of information is never discounted. At the end of it all, “the media is responsible for telling the truth and truth should not be hindered at the expense of diplomacy. By telling us the truth, the media will be able to help us realise our faults and this is beneficial in the long run” (Somiah, 2009).
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