Mass media as an empowerment tool for enculturing an informed society

Paper presented by MPI Chairman/CEO, Datuk Dr. Chamil Wariya at Forum on Enculturing An Informed Society, organised by the Ministry of Communication and Multimedia Malaysia, Cyberview Resort & SPA, Cyberjaya on 20 October 2016, 10.30 – 12.30

  1. Opening remarks

My short presentation on this topic of media as an empowerment tool for enculturing an informed society this morning will cover the following areas:

  • First, I will briefly outline the changes that have taken place in the media landscape since I began my career in journalism in 1971, driven of course mainly by technologies.
  • Second I will stress that although the media landscape has changed drastically, the core function of the media as information providers to citizens remain intact.
  • Third, I will touch at a glance the definition of an informed society.
  • Fourth, I will address the issues of media as an empowerment tool for enculturing an informed society.
  • Fifth, I will argue that content is king as an empowerment tool and here I will illustrate my point with a knowledge based program that a group of ASEAN journalists from four ASEAN countries had initiated to inform their respective audiences with regard to the thinking of ASEAN leaders.
  • Sixth, I will talk briefly about challenges of informing citizens in the age of digital information.
  • And finally I will address the issues of value of media as an empowerment tool as enculturing an informed society can only be realised when certain prerequisites are fulfilled.


  1. Changing in media landscape

When I began my career in journalism in the middle of 1971, I had no inkling at all that the media landscape in general and news organisation in particular will transform themselves into what it is today. My two cents worth of thought then was simple enough: newspapers, radio and television will remain as main players in the so called media and news industry. At best my thinking then was as for the future, what we are going to have is perhaps more newspaper titles, more radio stations and more television channels as information providers to audiences, with diverse ownerships which is important to provide diverse information so that citizen has access in getting reliable and useful information. But I was wrong, perhaps naïve, you may say.

As we can see today, the media landscape has changed drastically, beyond the imagination of my generation. Today we still have newspapers as a player, but whose future is uncertain. Many newspapers organisations are struggling; elsewhere in the world some have gone out of business; many are suffering from decline circulation and advertising revenue. Nobody can tell how long newspapers can last. But Bill Gates has predicted that newspapers in the physical form will come to an end sooner or later. What we will have are virtual newspapers or e-paper. As of now in fact we are witnessing the coexistence of the newspaper titles in the real world and also in the Internet. Due to market and commercial pressures, a number of newspapers have migrated to online totally, like the Independent in the United Kingdom. In Malaysia, most of print media have already developed their online presence with The Star Online and The Sun Online leading the way. A research by Hamzah & Mustafa (2014) showed most of Malaysian media organizations are aware of the technological development and its importance. They are ready and some are very ready to adapt to the changes and big fund are allocated for ICT development, so that they can compete and survive especially in the competitive newsroom era.

 We still have radios and televisions, but their existence is now being rivalled by other forms of new media as well– the internet, online portal, blogs, YouTube and a host of social media and the rest, which we are familiar with. I am not going into details of the new media landscape as we know what they are. All I can say is that the media of the industrial age is changing. And changing at a speed of lightning, some would say. But with the advent of digital media, we as  member of society that seek to be informed, we should not have problems in getting the information that would satisfy our need to make decision in our everyday lives be it with regard to politics, social or economic. I said so because our choices to get information are now at our own finger tips. The platforms and media organisations of the digital era are wide ranging. A journalist, Don Tapsott, in an article in 2013 published in The Globe and Mail, observed:

Allowed to flourish, new media technologies offer the promise for societies to be better informed, more open and more successful that their industrial counterparts. People in many parts of the world would have unprecedented access to data, information and knowledge. They can inform themselves through collaboration like never before. People by the millions can contribute useful knowledge for everyone to share (as in the case of Wikipedia).

  1. Media landscape has changed, but its core function remained intact

True, driven by technology, the media landscape has changed tremendously, perhaps beyond recognition by some of us, but as far as its functions is concerned, media as a tool for empowerment and enlightenment, remained unchanged:  The core function of the media to bring any information that is beyond the capacity of our immediate senses and mind, is still valid. In other words, if not because of the media that provides informations that are from distant events and timeline, we will not be informed of what is happening with our surroundings.

As you know humans are by nature a goal oriented creature. It’s not sufficient for us to receive and share information unless it is useful to our survival and livelihood.  The information must serves us and be beneficial. If knowledge is power then media is the tool of success for the individual, nations and civilizations. In the modern era, it is the mass media that we are concern of. The question is, how do we utilize mass media and their contents to achieve our specific goals? As such, it is the main concern of this paper to interpret and reconsider how does mass media serves as an empowerment tool to achieve the successes related to an informed society.


  1. An informed society – a definition


The World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Councils on Informed Society has given us a good and acceptable definition of what an informed society is. Let me share it with you. It said: “An informed society is one where citizens have the resources, educations and skills to access and participate in the free flow of reliable and useful information through a diverse range of platforms and media organizations that empower them to make a considered decision about their economic, social and political lives.”


If we agree with the above definition, is it clear that central to an informed society is not only information, but information that is reliable and useful obtained from a diverse platforms and news organisations.  We also must have the resources, educations and skills to access and participated in the free flow of information.

You may ask: Why do we need information in our everyday life? The answer is fairly simple: it has to do with the fact as citizen, individually and/or collectively, we have to make decisions about our economic, social and political lives. We have to make not only decisions, but considered and judicious decisions. In order to make considered decisions, every citizen must have the resources, educations and skills to access and participate in the free flow of reliable and useful information. Reliable and useful information must come from a diverse range of platforms and news organisations. If those elements are presence only then, and only then, an informed society will emerge.

In other words, an informed society is a fundamental element in democracy where accessibility and dissemination of information are freely available; where public participation of citizens takes place at their own free will, characterise by the de-monopolization of media organizations or public institutions that provide informations.

The end goal of an informed society is to achieve economic, political and cultural progress for all: not only for the government, the ordinary citizens, the NGOs, the industries.

 And as far this country is concerned all in all we seek a Malaysia based idea of an informed society: that upholds our values and aspirations.

  1. Media as an empowerment tool

Empowerment is a popular buzz word, but among scholars of various disciplines, there is no single accepted definition of the concept empowerment. It means different thing to different individuals or groups. As a general definition I agree with Nanette Page and Cheryl E. Czuba (1999). In an article entitled Empowerment What Is It?, they pointed out  that “empowerment is a multi-dimensional social process that help people gain control over their own lives. It is a process that fosters power in people for use in their own lives, their communities and in their society, by acting on issues they define as important.”

It is clear that at the core of the concept of empowerment is the idea of power that is the ability to make, persuade or influence others do what we want, regardless of their own interest or wishes.  Page and Czuba went on to argue the possibility of empowerment depends on two things –  first empowerment requires that power can be change; if power cannot change, if it is inherent in positions and people, then empowerment is not possible, nor empowerment conceivable in any meaningful way.

Second, the concept of empowerment depends upon the idea that power can expand. In this context power are not seen as zero sum game that is as something you get at my expense; that power will remain in the hands of the most powerful unless they give it up but are shared. If powers are shared, they are characterized by collaboration, sharing and mutuality. Shared power is also known as relational power, generative power, integrative power and power with. The end goal of shared power is to strengthen the power of others rather than diminishing it such as occurs with zero sum game concept of power whose central element is domination, influence and control.

Unlike empowerment, the meaning of tool is rather straight forward. The accepted definition of tool is a thing or instrument or mechanism that helps you to do your job or to achieve something. In the context of our discussion here, the goal is enculturing an informed society, meaning to change, modify or adapt behaviour idea by enculturation. In other words what we talking here is how citizens can utilise media – old and new – to make them an informed individual in a given society so that he or she can make a considered decisions about his or her economic, social and political lives.

I would argue here as far as media are concerned, in general, the basic empowerment tool is content, which can be divided into two – factual and fiction.  For news organisation in particular the basic empowerment tool is also content – mainly editorial content which is factual in nature. Editorial content that can be a tool for empowerment are mainly news reporting, feature writing, commentary and opinion pieces.

In other words we are talking here is about knowledge based program, whose content is highly informative and diverse. This can help citizens to enrich themselves with information that is reliable and useful in order for them to make decisions about economic, social and political lives.

  1. In Conversation

Perhaps one knowledge based program that I have initiated as an empowerment tool was during my career with TV3 Malaysia. The program was called In Conversation and it was a collaboration of four TV stations from the ASEAN region. Apart from TV3, there were other TV channels that took part: RCTI, Indonesia, ABS-CBN of the Philippines and iTV of Thailand. The program was created with a single purpose: to expose ASEAN leaders and their thinking to the respective audiences of the four ASEAN nations via a programme that was produced by ASEAN TV journalists. This joint-venture was significant for its perspective of ASEAN interest, unlike those produced by the Western media.

The four participating TV stations showed the program in their respective country.  Featured in the programme, among others were the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad; the Prime Minister of Thailand, Thaksin Sinawatra; the President of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo; the Presiden of Timor Leste, Xanana Gusmao; Speaker of Indonesian Parliament, Dr. Amien Rais, the Secretary General of ASEAN. But the program was short lived due to sponsorship issues.

In terms of knowledge sharing, the content of the program has helped to make audiences of the four ASEAN countries knew each other leaders and their thinking better. However, what was more interesting is the additional and accidental effect of the joint-venture.  I believe that the news media organizations could trigger and solidify regional networking between ASEAN countries. The process of producing the program had also an additional empowerment tool. It has created a network among the four ASEAN journalists participating in the project, which was not there before. If given the appropriate resources and time, the interaction between the journalist and their organizations could produce additional projects. It is not an exaggeration that this networking could be expanded into cultural and trade opportunities for the government and private entities alike. Surely, such regional opportunities are undoubtedly promoted and sought after by a modern informed society especially in Malaysia.

  1. Media as empowerment tool: Challenges in digital age information

But using media as an empowerment tool for enculturing informed societies in the digital age is easy said than done. Some said we are in a time of information turmoil. Yes, digital technologies offer unprecedented access to data and information, but not without a number of challenges. You may ask as Tapscott has asked:

  1. How do we survive information overload?
  2. How do we sort through all the misinformation spewed when more than a billion people essentially have printing presses at their fingertips?
  3. How do we ensure quality of news, investigative reporting and good journalism?
  4. How do you pay journalists?
  5. How do we avoid a balkanization of news where we each simply follow our point of view, placing each of us in self-reinforcing echo member where the purpose of information is not to inform us but to gives us comfort.
  6. How can school and universities take advantage of the new tools and media to transform pedagogy and themselves?

These questions are crucial for the establishment and the survival for an informed society. Media in general and news organisation in particular will only become a valuable empowerment tool for enculturing an informed society if free flow of information is not threaten by attempt to control and censorship by business media owners and leaders,  authorities or governments. Governments and business leaders everywhere have the responsibility to take action to ensure their citizens have full, open access to the information they need to be productive, prosperous, free and participate fully in the digital age. Any attempt to undermine free flow of informations, as some government have done, will jeopardize their society’s development and hence in enculturing an informed society.

However the danger of opposite extreme is also inherent; mass media, if unchecked or practiced without wisdom, will be a tool for disempower rather empower. The outcome is a misinformed society. As a result, it is not enough for our mass media to innovate and produce contents copiously. This will lead to misinformation (to give wrong information to someone intentionally and unintentionally) and also disinformation (deliberately false information, given out especially by government or intelligence services).

Disinformation or misinformation are abound when we do not regulate the media. If that is the case there is no way that enculturing an informed society could be materialised. Thus, government and business leaders all over the world have to take into cognizance that in a knowledge economy and in an age of networked intelligence the way forward for enculturing informed societies is a fine balance between governmental intervention and self-regulation.

Indeed in order to create informed societies which complies a certain minimum standard, the World Economic Forum’s 88 Agenda Council has proposed an Informed Society Index, with the following important elements:

  • Access – governments should take all steps possible to ensure that their citizens have access to both old and new media. Government should enact policies that protect media freedom and the openness of the Internet.
  • Education – is a right and requirement to every citizen
  • Media literacy – governments should ensure that citizens have access to complete, reliable and pertinent information and how to use it. Government should not censor, but instead create an environment in which ideas can be exchanged freely both on and off the Internet.
  • Transparency – governments should embrace transparency and freedom of information. This may include legislation, regulation, educations and partnering with public and private sector organizations to encourage openness. Media organizations should act in a manner that is responsible, transparent and accountable. Towards this end, I must say that Malaysian Press Institute (MPI) has been instrumental in championing the establishment of a self-regulatory institution known as the Malaysian Media Council. But sadly the project has yet to see the light as there was disagreement among editors about the setting up of such self-regulatory body. The Attorney General Chambers has drafted a legislation to set up the Council, but will only proceed with the tabling of the proposed law to the government and Parliament after editors agree to it.
  • Privacy – it is inevitable that the data available about each of us will continue to grow. Government and business leaders should understand that the need for security and profit must be tampered by the need for freedom, rooted in individual privacy. Governments should help educate citizens about the right of privacy.

But of course we cannot accept in total the suggestion made by the World Economic Forum. Different countries have to make some adjustments here and there as to take into account the national dynamics and aspiration of the country concerned.

  1. Closing remarks


As an empowerment tool the role of the media now and then is to provide reliable and useful information through a diverse range of platforms and news organization that citizens need to help them make considered decisions about their economic, social and political lives. But this goal can only be achieved if they have the resources, education and skills to access the kind of information that they required in the first place.

In the digital age we are now in, technologies offer unprecedented data and information.  Technology also promises a better informed society, but information must flow freely.  But of course with digital technologies also pose a number of challenges to citizens seeking information to make them an informed member of society. Among them are information overloading, misinformation and disinformation, the declining quality of news, investigative reporting and good journalism. Tendency among them to use information not to make them informed, but give them comfort also hinders enculturing an informed society.

As an empowerment tool, the real value of media both old and news hinges among other on access that is media freedom and the openness of the Internet; media literacy that is access to complete, reliable and pertinent information and know how to use it; transparency on the part of the government and media organizations and respect for privacy.


Having said that I must also stress that different county has different need as far using media as empowerment tool for enculturing informed societies. The internal dynamic of the country concerned will have to take into account and will play an important part in shaping the kind of informed society it wants to create. There is no gold standard for all. We in this country, seek a Malaysia based idea of an informed society whereby Malaysians holds our values and aspirations dear in our hearts.