Critical analyses of fundamental issues like environmental degradation, unsustainable urban development and poverty are prominent by their absence, writes Eric Loo. Media discourse is framed more by its ‘service of power’ than service for the rakyat.
'No kiddin’,' I mused when I read that Malaysian establishment newspapers were spiking our former PM’s criticisms of the current administration. I was then flying back to Sydney on 24 May after a week of meeting with veteran journalists in Mumbai and Delhi to gather materials for a book ‘Best (& bad) practices of Asian journalism’. Dr Mahathir now vents his angst via the net — Malaysiakini no less – which pre-2003 would have been mistaken for a bold First of April media spoof.
Back at work clearing a backlog of spams, I came across an email that alluded to an article on the Aliran website (22 April) headlined ‘The article the NST spiked’, with the subheading ‘The invisibles and social injustice’.
‘Sudah biasalah’ (Nothing unusual), I thought. But, the irony was NST spiked what it had actually commissioned a media academic to write to launch a media-watch column. Read the spiked article in the Aliran website, and you’d find few faults in its contents, purpose or narrative style. Censorship can be taken to ridiculous extremes, indicative of how the media-government nexus is as entrenched as it was during Dr Mahathir’s time. Media discourse is framed more by its ‘service of power’ than service for the rakyat. I’m tempted to say to Dr M, ‘There you are, a taste of your own medicine’.
As of 6 June, about two weeks after Mahathir’s angst was first published in Malaysiakini, the mainstream papers relented with front-page coverage of Mahathir’s spiel on the current administration. This sub-text, however, was not of a dignified statesman questioning the government’s direction, but of a disgruntled oldie with ‘post-traumatic prime ministerial syndrome’. An NST columnist even suggested that Dr M should zip up and, like any retired leader, should either ‘lead, follow or step aside’. This ‘please fade to the background’ angle is a complete turn-of-face from the excessive adulation lavished by veteran journalists on the eve of Mahathir’s retirement on 30 Oct 2003, when some confessed that they were ‘takut-takut’ (afraid) of asking the hard questions out of respect and awe for the former PM.
The art of censorship
The partnership-in-nation-building ideology and sway-with-whoever’s-running-the-country work mode has practically defined the daily straight reportage of politically and socially correct news. The media dictum is somewhat akin to “If you’re not with us – and whoever is our political master – then you’re against us”. This has made those just entering the profession wary of stepping over the line of editorial acceptability. Dark are the hours of Malaysian journalism.
The Malaysian news formula works on two forms of censorship: salient self-censorship, in which texts deemed offensive to public taste and morals as defined by the State for the media are omitted; and proscribed censorship, in which discourse – even that of a former PM – that conflicts with the State’s line of thinking is carefully spiked somewhere in the news production chain.
Thus, what one reads in the papers is a daily diet of general business news, community briefs, social trivia, and the inevitably dry, uninspiring protocol news. Critical analyses of fundamental issues like environmental degradation, unsustainable urban development, poverty, race relations, urban crimes, public corruption, class discrimination or migrant labour are prominent by their absence. The list of ‘what ought to be reported but is not’ is too long to cite here.
What’s the insidious threat to a free ethical press in the Malaysian context? No, it does not stem so much from punitive media laws as is commonly thought. The real threat stems from a learned sensitivity by rank-and-file reporters of the boundaries of political correctness in the newsroom, the professional safety, and rewards, that come with reporting for the corridors of power. Getting down to the grit of uncovering stories that matter to the rakyat is a tough call. This is due not to the lack of talents as to the lack of will. We have our small share of journalists who have done time and at great personal costs for telling their stories as they saw it. Search the Reporters san Frontieres website, among others, and you’ll read of our homegrown dissident journalists.
With the lack of veteran role models in the profession, have the rakyat lost faith in the younger generation of Malaysian journalists doing the right thing? I suppose the fundamental question is what drives our journalists? With our history of compliant journalism, stoked by the habitual ‘service of power’, the answer is elusive. Meanwhile, I draw some inspiration from my conversation with P. Sainath, rural affairs editor at The Hindu in Mumbai on 21 May. Sainath is also author of ‘Everybody loves a good drought – Stories from India’s poorest districts’ (Penguin Books, India, 1996). His work in covering the poor of India has won numerous awards including the European Commission’s journalism award, the Lorenzo Natali prize.
‘What drives you and your journalism?’ I asked.
‘The Indian journalistic tradition,’ Sainath said, which was born of a nation’s struggle against imperialism, colonial rule, inequality and injustice. Unlike, say, in the UK where the media first came up as purveyors of commercial intelligence (for example, Reuters) or acted as soothsayers and salesmen to the project of Empire, the Indian Press was the child of our freedom struggle. Almost every national level leader involved in it was a journalist one way or the other.
‘The Indian tradition did not come with the baggage of a false neutrality that simply served the status quo. It came into being by questioning, challenging, exposing, investigating the human condition and asking why the poor, exploited and oppressed were exploited and oppressed. People came to journalism because it offered them this unique opportunity to connect with their society.’
‘Most senior members of my extended family were part of the freedom struggle. Journalism and the two go together, or did. It was almost natural to go into journalism.’
‘What’s important or unimportant in your work?’
‘I believe journalism is for people, not shareholders. For communities, not corporations,’ Sainath replied. ‘Also important: democracy and diversity – both of which are threatened by growing corporate control which has use for neither.’
‘Equally important in a negative sense, rather than “unimportant” is the fundamental feature of the media of our times: the growing disconnect between mass media on the one hand and mass reality on the other.’
As a timely reminder, Sainath alluded to the fact that great journalists he knew of were those who had been dissidents — Thomas Paine, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr B R Ambedkar (1881-1956), an Indian leader from the dalit caste, or the ‘untouchables’.
‘How many establishment hacks would figure on your list? The establishment hacks are best remembered as high priests or soothsayers. Who remembers those who railed against Paine? Who can recall the names of the editors of the pro-colonial stream of the press who … ranted against Gandhi?’
We have our small share of journalists who have done time and at great personal costs for telling their stories as they saw it. Search the Reporters san Frontieres website, among others, and you’ll read of our homegrown dissident journalists.
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