By Kee Thuan Chye
01 January 2013
What Utusan Malaysia’s lawyer reportedly told the High Court on Dec 27 is shocking.
According to The Malaysian Insider, Firoz Hussein Ahmad Jamaluddin said newspapers do not have the “luxury of time” to verify the truth of news reports before publishing them.
In defending Utusan Malaysia’s report that allegedly accused Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim of being a proponent of gay rights, Firoz also said, “If newspapers have to go through the full process of ascertaining the truth, the details, they wouldn’t be able to report the next day.”
If he thinks this would justify the publication of untruths by the media, he is grossly wrong. No media organization should ever publish untruths or lies. On top of that, no media organization can, after doing it, claim justification by saying it had no time to check its facts.
Not checking facts before publication is a cardinal sin in journalism. And no self-respecting journalist or media could absolve themselves by saying they did not have the “luxury of time”.
If the truth cannot be verified, the report should not be published. That’s the first principle of journalism. “When in doubt, leave it out” is the mantra of responsible media editors. It is the responsibility of a media organization to tell the truth, not spread untruths to the public.
How could Utusan Malaysia stand by Firoz’s claim? How could it allow its lawyer to say something as scandalous as this?
Is it any wonder then that Utusan Malaysia has, especially in the last few years, been publishing wildly speculative and unverified reports with cavalier disregard for decency and responsibility?
Such conduct has certainly been deserving of censure, but what is also deserving of censure is the Home Ministry for not having taken adequate punitive action against the newspaper.
The Home Ministry is the body which oversees the conduct of media organizations since it has the absolute power to grant and revoke licenses, but it has been exceedingly lenient towards Utusan Malaysia.
It is surely aware that in the last few years, Utusan Malaysia has been found guilty of defaming a number of Pakatan leaders and others, among them Mahfuz Omar, Karpal Singh, Khalid Samad, Lim Guan Eng, Teresa Kok and Tenaganita Director Irene Fernandez.
In 2009, even Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Nazri Aziz slammed Utusan Malaysia for its outdated racist propaganda.
Furthermore, the newspaper has been running mischievous reports without substantiation, many targeted at the DAP in order to demonize it and alienate it from Malay voters. One was about church leaders conspiring with the DAP to Christianize the country. Another was about the DAP wanting to turn the country into a republic by abolishing the Malay royalty.
Then last July, it said Singapore’s ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), was plotting the downfall of the BN government through its local proxy, the DAP. This was of course preposterous – like the other two instances quoted above – because the truth is more likely to be that the PAP would prefer BN to remain in government for the sake of continuity.
If these are instances of reports that were published without first verifying the facts because of the constraint of time, as per Firoz’s implication, they should in the first place not have seen print. The reason is clear – not only are they untrue and capable of upsetting certain communities, they also negatively affect Utusan Malaysia’s credibility. And, worse, they make the newspaper look stupid.
This must surely account for why, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), Utusan Malaysia’s circulation has dropped 20 per cent between July 2005 and June 2010, a period of five years. In terms of numbers, the drop is from 213,445 copies per day to 170,558.
Within the same period, its Sunday edition, Mingguan Malaysia, plummeted from 483,240 copies to 372,163, dropping even more at 23 per cent.
Utusan Malaysia being punished through the loss of its readers is one thing; what it needs to also experience is severe punishment from the authorities.
After all, other newspapers have been punished severely for lesser sins. In 2010, China Press had to apologise and suspend its editor-in-chief after it was given a show-cause letter by the ministry over its allegedly false report that the then Inspector-General of Police, Musa Hassan, had resigned.
That same year, The Star was also slapped with a show-cause letter – for running an article about the caning of three Muslim women for illicit sex. And in February 2012, it was severely hounded by the ministry for running a photograph of American singer Erykah Badu sporting tattoos of the word ‘Allah’ in Arabic on her upper body. It had to apologize and suspend two editors. After their suspension, they were transferred to other desks.
The Home Ministry did, however, issue a warning letter to Utusan Malaysia for its Christian conspiracy report, but that has probably been the only action it has taken against the newspaper in recent memory. Besides, a warning letter is nothing compared to the action against the two cases mentioned above.
One surmises this is because Utusan Malaysia is owned by Umno, the dominant party in the ruling coalition. So it enjoys more immunity than any other newspaper.
In this regard, it is timely to consider the Media Freedom Act that is being considered by the Opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat.
This Act, which DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng has said Pakatan would try to enact if it won Putrajaya at the 13th general election, would, apart from ensuring press freedom in the country, prohibit political parties from directly owning media companies.
Right now, the media companies are mostly owned by parties in the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.
Among the influential newspapers, Berita Harian, Harian Metro and the New Straits Times are also owned by Umno, while The Star is owned by the MCA, and Tamil Nesan and Makkal Osai belong to MIC stalwarts.
Media Prima, which controls 8TV, ntv7, TV3 and TV9 and three radio stations, is also owned by Umno. This means that with BN being in government and controlling the State-owned RTM, the television medium is virtually monopolized by the ruling coalition.
The upshot of all this, as we have experienced over the decades, has been extremely unhealthy. Political coverage has been biased towards the ruling party and unfavorable towards the Opposition. News that would embarrass the Government or make it look incompetent is blocked from dissemination.
In total, the ruling coalition has been able to indoctrinate the masses with its propaganda to a frightening extent. One manifestation of its effects is the inability of some Malaysians to differentiate between “government” and “party” or to believe that BN is corrupt or abuses its powers.
Malaysian journalism, too, has lost its seat of nobility and honor because of one-sided reporting, manipulation of the truth and even the keeping of the truth from the public. It has become a custom for editors to sell their souls and toe the line in order to keep their cushy jobs.
It has also led to the kind of thinking expressed by Utusan Malaysia’s Deputy Chief Editor, Mohd Zaini Hassan, who in July 2012 told a forum that it was all right for journalists to spin the facts to present readers with a “desired picture”. He justified spinning as a way to attack the Opposition.
“Spin we can,” he said. “No matter how we spin a certain fact to be biased in our favor, that’s okay.”
For saying that, Zaini has no business calling himself a journalist. His words bring disgrace to the profession. Spinning is distorting the truth, and distorting the truth is against the principles of journalism. It is also morally wrong. Those who spin are nothing more than propagandists.
Such propagandizing should not be allowed to happen in the media any more, regardless of which coalition comes to power after the upcoming general election. We can put a stop to it by supporting the tabling of the Bill for a Media Freedom Act.
That Pakatan is willing to surrender the opportunity to control Malaysian minds through controlling the media if it comes to power speaks admirably of its commitment to a democratic Malaysia. But it should not stop at preventing political parties from directly owning media companies; it should also ensure that they do not indirectly own such companies.
Then and only then can we have the beginnings of a free media. Then and only then can we begin to enjoy the privilege of thinking for ourselves.
*Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the bestselling book No More Bullshit, Please, We’re All Malaysians, available in bookstores together with its Malay translation, Jangan Kelentong Lagi, Kita Semua Orang Malaysia. The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the writer.