Party broadcasts signal a maturing of the country's democracy
IN principle, it is easy to avow equal access for political parties to make their sales pitches in a democratic election. In practice, however, it is much harder -- given how readily politicians abuse their freedom of speech and much else besides. It is thus not surprising that Malaysia has taken this long to allow parties to air their manifestos on public media. Indeed, the cabinet deserves credit for such a bold move. The more so when even the BBC, for whom party political broadcasts have been around for many years, is stingy with its time. The British station restricts what parties are permitted to say on camera and is careful not to imply any bias in offering this particular service. It also stresses that such programming is separate from its own journalism. The rules for RTM should be equally rigorous. Nevertheless, the practice of granting some advertising space for political parties in elections or referendums has become de riguer, not just in the developed West, but in emerging democracies as well.
The reason is not just about level playing fields. John Stuart Mill, the British philosopher, feared a "democracy" of ill-informed or, worse, uneducated masses. His prognosis, under such a circumstance, was a dictatorship of the mediocre. That, however legitimate a concern, cannot justify the absence of standard democratic norms. Instead, the introduction of basic constitutional practices with ongoing liberalising reforms will ultimately take a nation towards true democracy. The Malaysian electorate is now claimed to be more mature than in the past. The government should thereby reciprocate with a gradual loosening of its "government knows best" approach. This has been a mantra of the Datuk Seri Najib Razak administration.
Driven by Najib, the country is undergoing a political transformation. Already the Election Commission is making good its promises of improving the transparency of elections, such as the use of indelible ink, an updated electoral roll and urging qualified citizens to register as voters. It is now putting in place the means whereby deserving political parties -- meaning, at the very least, those with a presence in the legislative chambers, as in the United Kingdom -- will be given airtime on public broadcasting channels. Naturally, as in all cases where party political broadcasts are a common feature, the anarchy of the Internet is a no-go. Rules will ensure decorum and that the parties stick to urging their cases by reasoned and polite argument. At the same time, these regulations must secure for the parties true access: a prime time slot, broadcasts in the country's major communication languages, and a meaningful duration.