5 July 2015
ON the outset, a qualification has to be made. I have worked with the owner of The Edge, Tong Kooi Ong, when he was briefly the executive vice-chairman of the Sun Media Group. Ho Kay Tat, the publisher of The Edge, and I honed our skills as journalists in Balai Berita in the eighties.
Both these men were involved in the transition of this publication from a subscription-based one to a free newspaper in 2004. Both men had news sense and the business acumen to go with it. They were professional and took a hands-on approach but never micro-managed. They gave journalists the freedom to write with one caveat – get your facts before even attempting to write the story.
Over the years, the many big stories that theSun broke including the PKFZ fiasco, Zakaria’s Palace and Paya Indah Wetlands went through several layers of scrutiny before they were published.
But today’s column is not on them or personalities. It is on an issue close to the hearts of all who identify themselves as media people – reporters, journalists, columnists, editors and above all – owners and publishers.
To one who has been following the 1MDB saga over the past few months and occasionally commenting on it in passing, so many facts and figures have emerged.
Many news reports have emanated from documents obtained from various sources. As I have always maintained, the newspaper presents these and perhaps, asks questions and allows the readers to make an educated judgment and separate the wheat from the chaff.
No journalist or publication worth their salt will want to deliberately present false figures or information. Many have learnt the hard way that publishing half-truths and hearsay has its pitfalls – financially and reputation-wise.
The numerous lawsuits against newspapers including theSun is evidence of a thriving, robust and vibrant publishing arena which reveals that anything published is scrutinised, word by word, for anything that injures the reputation of individuals or corporate bodies.
Last week, the brouhaha over 1MDB took a different turn with the arrest of Xavier Justo, the former director of PetroSaudi International , who is alleged to have tampered and doctored documents in the company’s deals.
It would have been a routine arrest in Thailand and even before the facts have been revealed in an open court, the word “alleged” has lost its meaning and replaced with the phrase “assumption of guilt”.
Deputy Home Minister Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar was quoted in this newspaper last week that the Thai Police will not make any speculation on the case as it will jeopardise the credibility of the investigations.
Then came his telling words. “It is very simple, the person arrested was Justo and the document seems to be from him, we cannot assume anything else other than (that) he had tampered with the documents.”
I have to dispute him. Journalists are trained to observe the golden rule that “you don’t assume anything”.
For example, if a minister leads a lifestyle that is not commensurate with his normal income, can it be assumed that he is on the take?
By training, journalists are made to undertake investigations into the source of the minister’s wealth and then confront him with the ultimate question: “Sir, you live in a mansion, have eight cars and your children are studying in the UK and they own properties in posh areas in London. Can you please explain for the benefit of the public who may have misconceptions about you?”
That’s the way it is done and ought to be done – not assume guilt by association.
This highly dangerous and open-ended statement by Wan Junaidi will be no defence when the offended parties cite the writer and the publication for defamation.
That is why the show-cause letter sent to The Edge by his ministry makes little sense. Without citing specific instances where there has been “false reporting”, his boss, Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi now says that the publication “should know which articles they published were inaccurate.”
This is like arresting someone and accusing him of corruption.
“Tuan, from whom did I take a bribe? Can you be specific – date, time and the quantum?”
“You should know what you took and how much you took. So own up and be punished.”
(Imagine applying this principle to some of our politicians and civil servants.)
No editor will publish anything if he knows it is false because the consequences are dire indeed. Having been in such a role, facts are checked, verified, authenticated and validated before they go to print. In some cases, lawyers are consulted.
In between, as part of the regime, the journalist is trained to present two sides of the story. He or she is required to contact all parties to respond to the facts. Some are done via phone, others by email and in many instances, there is a personal interview.
But this whole thing is about “knowing”. It’s akin to pulling me up for “false reporting” and telling me that I should know which one is false.
Over the past years, I have written and theSun has published more than 1,000 commentaries and news reports. From the bottom of my heart, I can say that there have been no instances of fabrication of news or making false statements.
That’s why many of us consider and craft our words in our minds before even putting them on paper. There’s no such thing as “publish and be damned”.
We, journalists cannot be made to prove our innocence or know which report was false. We write based on evidence and documents which we check and counter-check.
The Sword of Damocles hangs over our heads every day. The writer knows he has nothing else but to rely on facts he has gathered; the editor asks questions as to the accuracy and truthfulness; and the publisher trusts that all these had been done before the newspaper hits the stands or reaches your doorstep.
This is not a matter of a show-cause letter to one publication. It is the principle. The media expects no favours. It merely wants to do its job and have unfettered access to information which it wants to share with the masses. Nothing more, nothing less.
R. Nadeswaran is editor (special and investigative reporting) at theSun. Comments: [email protected]