Mirror, mirror…

Sunday Star
Sunday, June 15 2008

Mirror, mirror…
by A. Asohan

It’s all very well to gripe about the lack of a free and fair press. Question is: Have you done anything to deserve one?

THERE’S a piece of wisdom whose truth is so self-evident that it’s been handed down the generations in various forms and via different media.

There are different aspects to this truism, and even Michael Jackson sang something about the man in the mirror.

I understand it thusly: Before you blame others for your woes, take a good look at yourself.

Nowhere was this form of self-denial more evident than in the talk on press freedom by Minister’s in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, organised by the National Press Club, the National Union of Journalists and the Centre for Independent Journalism (www.cijmalaysia.org/) two weeks ago.

The talk was followed by a “walk for press freedom” coordinated by the parties above, as well as the Writer Alliance for Media Independence, Benar for Free and Fair Media and the National Bloggers Alliance.

More than 150 journalists, civil society advocates, non-governmental organisation representatives and interested bloggers had squeezed into the National Press Club for Zaid’s speech.

He started off with a courageous – in my opinion at least – and relevant attack on the disenchanted crowd arrayed before him: Don’t blame the Government for everything. What have you done to push for reforms? How many of you are willing to risk jail or unemployment for your principles?

He soldiered on, despite some boos and catcalls from some journalists and ex-journalists – a tad ironic considering this is a profession whose code of ethics includes giving every opinion, perspective or viewpoint due consideration and the right to be aired.

It’s as if we had all forgotten that much of the malaise facing the media in Malaysia can be laid squarely at our feet.

The minister was right. We’re not a united front. We’re a bunch of professionals who compete against each other, sometimes fractiously. Sure, we may come together for select issues and at certain times, but when we go back to our newsrooms, we’re out to scoop each other.

And we’re a bunch of different individuals too. Some are journalists because it was the only job we could get, others because we wanted to serve society, a few just drifted into it, a small few because we felt the “call”, some because it seemed a good idea at the time, and quite a number saw it as a stepping stone.

We all have different views of our profession, and practise it with varying degrees of adherence to ethics and principles. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.

There are, of course, damned good journalists in Malaysia, and they’ll tell you tales of reporters being sidelined because they were considered loose cannons, others being put in “cold storage” to appease corporate and political masters, some being scolded for wasting their time on “dangerous” stories.

We’re blaming the Government for all of this?

Let’s clean up our act first, then we can talk.

But there was a bit of spin-doctoring that Sunday. There are laws in this country that adversely affect the media in this country. Laws that, even if you belief in the need for them, have been inconsistently applied and abused.

They are of course the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Internal Security Act, the Sedition Act and these days, the Communications and Multimedia Act.

Zaid said that if these laws were to be reviewed or even repealed, the media better have something in mind to replace them, else there would be anarchy.

I beg to differ. First, Zaid is too intelligent not to know that “anarchy” (from the Greek anarchia or “without a ruler”) in its original meaning doesn’t equate to “disorder”.

Second, the Government shouldn’t get a “get of jail” card here either. These laws have been misused or abused by people in government far too much and for far too long.

Just as much as we journalists should not blame the Government for everything, or look to it to resolve our woes, the Government should not deflect from its own responsibility here either.

As a few participants pointed out at the talk, there have been attempts by the media for reform, but they’ve fallen on deaf ears.

The media, the Government … who else can we point a finger at here?

How about you, the people of Malaysia? There is some truth to the saying that the media acts as a mirror on society, and that it can only reflect the ideals and aspirations of the society it serves.

For 50 years, you folks kept returning to power, and almost always with a two-thirds majority, the parties that have enacted and implemented these laws. By doing so, you gave your tacit approval.

And cynical journalists would be quick to point out that the Malaysian electorate usually starts demanding reforms only in times of great economic turmoil, which seems to come in 10-year cycles. When stomachs start to rumble, as it were.

There are many journalists who wonder if a free and independent media is what the Malaysian public really wants. There are some who have quit the profession because they felt betrayed by the very society they were trying to serve.

Zaid said he was willing to continue engaging the media. The organisers of the June 1 “talk and walk” said they would continue to push for reforms. There is discussion of a parliamentary select committee being formed to look into the issue.

All of us – the press, the powers-that-be and the public – are stakeholders here. But unless we’re willing to look at ourselves and admit to our own culpability first, we won’t be able to change ourselves, let alone transform the media landscape here.

A. Asohan, New Media Editor at The Star, will try to calm down and clam up now … but no promises!


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