For New Straits Times to Be Truly Repentant …

By Kee Thuan Chye

Last Friday, the New Straits Times ate humble pie and apologised to four NGOs for having defamed them in a front-page report it published last year that carried no substance and offered no evidence whatsoever to support its accusation that they were involved in a plot to destabilise the Government.

The newspaper now acknowledges that the report, written by Farrah Naz Karim, was “groundless” and “false”, and that it “should not have been published”.

When it came out on September 21, 2012, I was appalled by its blatant disregard of journalistic ethics – in fact, of any kind of ethics. I thought it pathetic that the newspaper had sunk so low. This was the worst transgression the paper had committed perhaps since 1998, when it carried on its front page a couple of stories that were editorials rather than news reports aimed at assassinating the character of Anwar Ibrahim after he was sacked by then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad for accusing the latter of paranoia and resisting the need to weed out corruption and cronyism.

For those who may not remember the contents of the 2012 story, which carried the headline ‘Plot to destabilise govt’, let me provide an analysis here. I know it well because I have since used it in my workshops on writing for the media to promote the need for ethics in journalism.

The story was well played up because it was the front-page main story of the newspaper. Its first paragraph, or lead, read:

Investigators probing into the financial background of several non-governmental organisations have uncovered attempts by foreign hands to destabilise the government.

This was a lead given to sensationalising. The accusation it made was serious. The reader would be prompted to ask what the evidence was and to find it in the next paragraph, but this was all that NST offered:

Sources revealed that from 2005 to 2011, almost RM20 million, courtesy of the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED) had allegedly been channelled to:

*Suaram (RM1.6 million);

*National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) (RM4.6 million);

*Mkini Dotcom Sdn Bhd (RM298,000);

*and others (RM13.3 million).

It also claimed:

From last year, several other set-ups, namely Bersih, Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research, Lawyers for Liberty, Liberal Banter Sdn Bhd as well as the International Republican Institute, began receiving funds from NED, an organisation that had been claimed to have “played a significant role in attempting to destabilise legitimate governments and replace them with client proxies”.

Who were the sources? Are they reliable? Is the mere claim about NED’s role in “attempting to destabilise legitimate governments” enough for the report to stand on?

Without substantiating anything, the report then proceeded to demonise Suaram, the human rights NGO that had angered the Government for bringing the Scorpene submarine issue to the French courts:

Sources also revealed that Suaram, which is under several investigations, including for allegedly raising funds while operating as an unregistered society as well as for serious violations of at least five sections of the Companies Act … had four known foreign funders.

The targeting of Suaram went on for several paragraphs. As for its four foreign funders, there was nothing said about their having enlisted Suaram’s help in destabilising the Government, merely that they gave Suaram money. Any intelligent reader by now would have begun to doubt the credibility of the report and realised that the newspaper was actually doing a hatchet job on Suaram. As Kua Kia Soong, Director of Suaram, recently put it, NST was behaving like “the ruling party’s media assassin”.

Kua is also right in remarking, “And a poor assassin at that!” Because NST did a poor job that actually made it look stupid. If you wanted to shoot down anyone, you should at least have the ammunition to do so. NST was shooting blanks. And they were flying about without any direction.

NST thought its report could gain legitimacy by quoting an academic, but of course that was wrong thinking. Even worse, it had to pick Chandra Muzaffar, who had already come to be regarded as a ruling party abettor, not only because he was also Chairman of 1Malaysia Foundation:

In an interview with Berita Harian last night, International Movement for a Just World (JUST) president Professor Dr Chandra Muzaffar said NED had been known to lend substantial financial support to NGOs in particular countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria.

He claimed it had been uncovered that such efforts had been going on aggressively over the past five years in the name of democratic freedom with the objective of making people rise up against leaders who were allegedly deemed to be cruel.

Chandra made numerous claims about NED’s activities in the Arab world, Russia, South and Central America. He also said “the credibility of such an organisation which claims to support institutions of freedom and democracy was questionable as it could threaten global security”. Why and how is supporting freedom and democracy a threat to global security?

His claims were sweeping and bore no direct relation to the Malaysian situation. Even if NED were indeed as heinous as he said it was, did he have any proof that it was using Malaysian NGOs to destabilise the Malaysian government? How were these NGOs destabilising the Government? What means were they using? It was surprising that this so-called intellectual had not thought of that himself.

The report ended with:

He added that those behind the body included Zionist groups which maintain good relations with the Jewish government.

Was that relevant at all?

Clearly, the entire report was characterised by a lack of understanding of what it was actually trying to do and of how it could be effectively done.

It did not even get the other side of the story, i.e. interview Suaram, Malaysiakini, Bersih or any of the other NGOs it named as being in cahoots with NED. This was journalism that was neither fair nor balanced.

Lawyers for Liberty advisor Eric Paulsen was prompted to ask, “If NST had been a proper media organisation with integrity, why didn’t they ask Chandra Muzaffar about his track record or from where he receives funding?”

“I cannot understand the stupidity this country can sink to,” said Masjaliza Hamzah, Executive Officer at the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ).

What befuddled me then, as it still does now, is why the experienced journalists of NST didn’t realise at the time that a report like this could not hold water because it lacked evidence, made sweeping statements, was unconvincing about its so-called sources and failed to represent the views of the groups it accused. Why did they proceed to publish – on the newspaper’s front page, no less – such a sensationalised, ‘nothing’ story?

Even if they were doing it to serve their political master and major owner, Umno, and knew they were being unprofessional, they must surely have realised that they needed to be intelligent about it and do it right?

Well, in the end, some justice has prevailed. To get out of the defamation suit filed against it by Bersih, Suaram, CIJ and Merdeka Centre, NST has apologised and agreed to pay the four NGOs RM120,000. The amount is of course minuscule, considering that the NGOs have suffered significant damage to their reputation because of that reprehensible report.

One important question remains, however. What action will be taken by NST itself against the staff members responsible for the publication of something that was “false” and “should not have been published”?

I ask this for the sake of accountability for a transgression that is highly serious. I ask this because we don’t seem to have been upholding it in this country.

With Ling Liong Sik having been acquitted of cheating the Government and the Attorney-General not appealing the verdict, who is to be held accountable for the Port Klang Free Zone (PKFZ) multi-billion-ringgit fiasco?

With the rakyat’s money being misspent by government departments year after year, as exposed by the Auditor-General, who have been held accountable and brought to book so that it doesn’t happen again?

With the Serdang Hospital having experienced ceiling collapses at four areas within it in the last three years – the latest being the one last week in the intensive care unit for newborn babies – why hasn’t anyone been held accountable? Do we wait till there are fatalities?

With Negeri Sembilan Menteri Besar Mohamad Hasan having transferred RM10 million out of the country illegally in 2008, why was he cleared of wrongdoing whereas the moneychanger involved in the transaction got fined and lost his licence? Why wasn’t Hasan held accountable?

Accountability should be seen to be upheld not only in the public sector but also in the private sector. So the people responsible for the NST’s dastardly report have to be punished. If they are still working there.

This is what I propose. In degrees of accountability starting with the lowest – which should determine the severity of the punishment – the people to be held accountable are 1) the reporter; 2) the news editor who gave the reporter the assignment; 3) the editor-in-chief who must assume full responsibility for everything the editorial department of the newspaper does.

There may be others in the editorial decision-making process who were involved, like senior editorial executives. They should also be punished.

Only when this is done, can it be said that NST has realised its grave mistake and truly repented.

It will also set the standard for professionalism, and renounce the practice of gutter journalism.

* Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the new book The Elections Bullshit, now available in bookstores.

  1. #1 by sheriff singh on Thursday, 21 November 2013 - 12:01 am

    What have those personalities who claim to be champions of transparency, integrity, good governance etc etc , have to say about all these possibly UMNo / BN related plots and scams ? You know that ex-Senator, ex-TI fellow and that female ex-NGO activist who are now Ministers (and government lackeys apologists) and so on?

  2. #2 by Noble House on Thursday, 21 November 2013 - 1:50 am

    Journalistic ethics? Repentant? That will be quite a tall order for the carrion eaters which is how I would describe journalists in the government-controlled media. Any of them who would be so foolish as to write his honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job!

    Political sloganeering is one of the most potent weapons in a party’s armoury. The best linger in the public memory long
    after the issues driving them have moved on. There is no such thing as freedom of the press – what they come out with is cheap shot. Some may even sell his race and his country for his daily bread. You know this and I know it, and what folly is this to be toasting an “Independent Press.”

  3. #3 by waterfrontcoolie on Thursday, 21 November 2013 - 7:02 am

    Oh! Is it still around? Had actually forgotten that it is still being read. Or the Chandran Frog also still around?

  4. #4 by Godfather on Thursday, 21 November 2013 - 7:41 am

    Oh, what about the PM and DPM that effectively control the newspaper and dictate editorial policy ? They milk the paper during election time and, after the damage is done, apologise for their deliberate errors ? And if circulation goes down, demand that GLCs support the paper with ads and subscriptions ?

  5. #5 by boh-liao on Friday, 22 November 2013 - 4:27 am

    Repentant? No such thingy lah, just a charade n ever readi 2 strike again by publishing lies n more lies @ d beckon their masters, NST & UtusM – same, same
    D kaki involved most likely oredi well rewarded by gomen
    They had achieved d objectif of smearing sh!t on d 4 NGOs B4 d last GE

  6. #6 by Bigjoe on Friday, 22 November 2013 - 8:07 am

    Let me repeat, the likes of NST, Utusan, Star are NOT MEDIA. What they do is what the REVERSE of what Alam Flora and Indah Water Does. Where the latter takes waste and stink away from us, what these so called “media” does is bring it in front of us.

    Journalist? Next time I call the Bangla that come to my house in the morning Journalists too..

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