Testy times call for soul searching of the Fourth Estate

Terence Fernandez
The Malaysian Insider
10 September 2014

It has been a testy time for the media with the powers that be. In just two weeks, we have had a reporter from an online portal detained for sedition in Penang, Home Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi demanding an English daily retract and apologise for a news report which depicted him as being a chauvinist (which the paper duly did and apologised) and attempts by a lawyer representing a well-connected firm to compel yours truly and a colleague to reveal sources who were quoted in a front page report last month.

On a separate note, there is also the ongoing repartee between the Malaysian Press Photographers Association (MPPA) and the family of a MH17 victim following a fracas at the Nirvana Memorial Park on September 2 when a grieving family member punched a photographer and broke his camera for allegedly invading their privacy.

Meanwhile, colleague Azril Annuar has been preoccupied entertaining the continuous requests from Kajang Police for statements on an article quoting Rafizi Ramli on the reason for the “Kajang Move” that saw PKR leader Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail contest a vacated Kajang state seat to enable her to throw her hat into the menteri besar ring.

As we now know, Rafizi was charged for sedition on August 28.

The relationship between the media and the authorities has, for most of the time, been more than cordial which is why for a long time the mainstream press especially have borne the unflattering title of the government or ruling party’s mouthpiece.

And with the advent of online portals, the public’s disdain for stenographic journalism (as well as reading trends among the young) saw a decline in newspaper sales and readership.

Then some daily papers decided to be bold – this is partly credited to the initial reform-centred administration of Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi – and to look to commercial interests where advertisers follow readers’ eyeballs.

With the public demanding more critical reporting and analysis, a number of newsmen and news organisations felt the need to up their game, and in the last decade or so we saw what some would deem “mainstream” press coming out with critical pieces including investigative reports that put the ruling elite on the spot.

The powers that be – and I include both federal and state leaders from both sides of the divide – soon saw the need to engage the media more aggressively in search of allies, an exercise which inevitably also unveiled “unfriendly” parties who were blacklisted.

Two years ago, I attended a briefing by a minister on the eve of the Bersih 3 rally.

There were representatives from about a dozen news organisations at the meeting where we were told to only report official accounts from the police and not to play up “sensational” news or publish pictures of injured demonstrators.

Following the briefing, the editors followed the minister into his office. However, after five senior editors from the mainstream dailies had entered, the rest of us literally had the door shut on our faces.

“It’s a special briefing,” we were told.

The following day, the similar angling of the rally in these dailies gave one the impression that the “special briefing” was to determine the following day’s headlines.

So these days, you have some reporters being told to leave press conferences as they are deemed to be one-sided; press briefings with “friendly parties” are the norm while others are blatantly left out.

However, the perennial retort by politicians to uncomfortable questions – “What paper are you from?” – is not exclusive to those in the federal government. Several of those who have only become administrators in the last few years have also become adept at deflecting questions through this form of intimidation.

With the authorities and powerful politicians using defamation suits and laws such as the Printing and Publications Act and the Sedition Act to go after the media, it is important for the Fourth Estate to be united.

The press in Malaysia unfortunately, is divided – the “mainstream” and “alternative” divisions are magnified by political and ideological differences.

That there seem to be a number of unions and groups representing newsmen is indicative of this.

How many of us have had colleagues from other media give dirty looks when we ask “sensitive” questions to a minister?

How many reporters have snickered instead of coming to the aid of a colleague who is ripped by someone in power for a “stupid question”, although the issue demands attention?

How many reporters have substituted “you” when addressing a politician to “we”?

How many have chided their colleagues for “spoiling the market” by not accepting brown envelopes from politicians?

The onslaught against the media has been heightened as we have seen lately with the suspension of The Heat and ongoing legal efforts of FZ Daily to obtain a print licence, and now attempts to out sources.

Although High Court judge Justice Datuk Lau Bee Lan ruled in favour of protecting sources on August 29, there will be no let-up in attempts to remove this protection.

Which is why it is incumbent upon members of the Fourth Estate to band together to protect what is essentially their rice bowl – freedom of information and the people’s right to know – and also to call out without fear or favour those who abuse their positions.

But the press must first hold ourselves to the standards we expect of those about whom we report.

This includes demonstrating the highest standards of impartiality, accuracy, ethics and confidentiality.

It is imperative that we do not provide ammunition to those out to justify shackling the media.

The right to know must be tempered with the need to respect what is “off record”; public interest must always come first; and the right to tell a story must be complemented with the other side’s right to be heard.

And sometimes good journalistic practice includes knowing when to put down our pens and cameras. – September 10, 2014.

  1. #1 by Noble House on Friday, 12 September 2014 - 3:33 am

    If we didn’t know better, we’d think that the dogs have gone crazy and started attacking humans in unprecendented numbers (ala Hitchcock’s “The Birds”), but in fact dog attacks on people are likened to how media helps shape public opinion and draw their attention to the politics of the day.

    When a dog sinks it’s teeth in, the AG goes for the throat!

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