There’s No Excuse For Not Reporting The Truth

By Kee Thuan Chye
Malaysian Digest
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If the truth cannot be verified, the report should not be published.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In 2009, even Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Nazri Aziz slammed Utusan Malaysia for its outdated racist propaganda.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.

  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Thursday, 3 January 2013 - 8:10 pm

    Are you kidding? ‘should ever publish untruth or lies’? ‘no..can claim justification by saying it had no time’?..

    Reporting the truth is A NEWSPAPER JOB. ITS THE LICENSE GIVEN…Saying otherwise is SAYING IT CAN’T DO IT BASIC JOB and anyone saying it should be FIRED and OUT OF THE PROFESSION period..

    If someone says it can’t check all the facts before he report it, then he should instead go into advertising although I seriously doubt even THAT he is qualified since SLANDER is not allowed also..

  2. #2 by rjbeee on Thursday, 3 January 2013 - 9:38 pm

    hello Mamak Tongkang Kutty from Kerala ..apa itu apa itu….any comments

  3. #3 by rjbeee on Thursday, 3 January 2013 - 9:40 pm

    This is what you get from diplomatic pass lawayers….cara makan..malaysia Boleh

  4. #4 by tak tahan on Thursday, 3 January 2013 - 9:44 pm

    Soon we will hear one of the same kind of buntutsan’s idiotic news but in an awful Ingrisi version.Let’s wellcome wakakaka….chengho!!

  5. #5 by cseng on Thursday, 3 January 2013 - 10:12 pm

    How could a qualified lawyer bring this as a basis of argument? Maybe overstayIing in utusan, lost balance mind.

    Idiot would speak idiotly, presumingly others also as idiotic as him, whoever believe in this idiotic argument is the real idiot…lets wait if anyone confirm he is indeed an idiot.

  6. #6 by john on Thursday, 3 January 2013 - 10:22 pm

    How to verify as it will lead back to them being the ones behind actually. No hope, only by ABU
    will make some positive changes.

  7. #7 by good coolie on Thursday, 3 January 2013 - 10:30 pm

    The overall fall in ethical standards started much earlier. Remember that a certain judge who was to hear a case the day after, had tea in his chambers with a party to the case in the absence of the other party to the case? It seems that he had done no wrong. He was only having tea with a friend. Only UMNO fellows can defend shoddy public standards.

  8. #8 by monsterball on Thursday, 3 January 2013 - 10:49 pm

    Why do you think English educated Malaysians are not buying newspapers…especially NST to read?
    Utusan Malaysia has established itself a rubbish paper today.
    Any decent Govt. should have closed up Utusan.

  9. #9 by boh-liao on Friday, 4 January 2013 - 1:39 am

    Y SHOCKING!? We all know it’s SHIOKING 4 UmnoB/BN-controlled msm 2 publish LIES, more LIES, n nothing but LIES on PR n PR’s politicians

  10. #10 by chengho on Friday, 4 January 2013 - 2:24 am

    Do you believe in freedom of expression or you will believe if not contradict with Pakat Pakat opinion , pathetic isn’t

  11. #11 by Noble House on Friday, 4 January 2013 - 3:36 am

    Paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to fantasy lands. It is for this reason, people too often confuse what they read in newspapers with news.

    Freedom of the press, or, to be more precise, the benefit of freedom of the press, belongs to everyone – to the citizen as well as the publisher. The crux is not the publisher’s freedom to print; it is, rather, the citizen’s right to know. And the truth is “hate speech” only to those who have something to hide.

  12. #12 by monsterball on Friday, 4 January 2013 - 4:46 am

    chengho we love freedom of expressions.
    Who is stopping you?
    We are only expressing our opinions….. after reading your comments.
    Why don’t you try it…debate…..battle of wits….instead of keep expressing.

  13. #13 by drngsc on Friday, 4 January 2013 - 8:25 am

    Basically, they act like their owner, with great arrogance. They just do not bother. They do ehatever they like or feel like doing.
    Well, this year, we have to show them that they must bother. That the Rakyat is important. This arrogance does not pay.

    We must change the tenant at Putrajaya. GE 13 is coming soon. PR 121 is coming real soon. First to PR 121, then to GE 13, then to Putrajaya. Let us work hard for the whole journey. One to one campaigning will our leaders do the mass campaigning.

    Change we must. Change we can. Change we will.

  14. #14 by lee tai king (previously dagen) on Friday, 4 January 2013 - 9:02 am

    Stupidest defence. That is as good as admitting that utusan did not verify the news they published.

  15. #15 by monsterball on Friday, 4 January 2013 - 10:57 am

    Utusan has always been a paper ….spinning with half truths in favor of UMNO and fooling Muslim readers.
    It was a paper with many pages of news….now reduced drastically as thousands Muslim readers have stop buying the papers.

  16. #16 by chengho on Friday, 4 January 2013 - 12:07 pm

    So old fashion with hard copy , people read on line

  17. #17 by cseng on Friday, 4 January 2013 - 3:03 pm

    Agree, you either read on line or if you read utusan, you read between lines.

    If you can’t differentiate freedom of expression from speaking like an idiot, that is pathetic, real pathetic, isn’t it?

    How could you not qualify as an idiot, if you justify lies with reason of no luxury of time. Freedom of expression is free, so does being an idiot, you just need to talk and others confirm it for you…FOC.

  18. #18 by chengho on Saturday, 5 January 2013 - 12:36 pm

    That is the problem with u cseng , never practice what u preach , u cannot accept freedom of speech when that speech againt your opinion . When u tell other people idiot, look at the mirror ,probably u are talking about yourself , so pathetic ,pity u

  19. #19 by monsterball on Sunday, 6 January 2013 - 11:22 am

    chengho…you ARE an idiot.
    We are responding to you comments.
    What opinions have you…..NOTHING..only keep putting out rubbish.

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