Home 2011: 4 Who minds the minders?

Who minds the minders?

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Of late there has been talk of setting up a media council. Zaharom Nain asserts that a council with teeth is needed to hold the media accountable to the rakyat.. The repressive legal environment and increasing concentration of media ownership have to be tackled as well.

Photo credits: uppercaise

Journalists are those who make a living reporting the news, bringing to our attention events and information that warrant their effort.
(Local, naïve, internet columnist)

It is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers without understanding the hidden agendas of the message and myths that surround it.
(John Pilger)

Some years ago, in 2000 in fact, I wrote a polemical piece titled ‘Hacks and Hussies’ with the subtitle ‘how much cruder and more vulgar can the Malaysian mainstream media become?’ It was published as the lead article for Aliran Monthly (AM, Vol. 20 No.1).

The title, indeed the whole article, referred to the men and women in the Malaysian mainstream media. The aim was to provoke the mainstream journalists then – at least those few who bothered to read Aliran Monthly – to rise above their increasing mediocrity at a time when the Asian meltdown was beginning to take effect socially and politically in the region. Indeed, a time when change was beginning to take place around the region and, certainly, also at home, with the dismissal and detention of Anwar Ibrahim.

Given the limited readership of Aliran Monthly, certainly among Malaysia’s finest scribes, there were, I believe just two responses to my piece, both from committed journalists who insisted that there were still good journalists around – which wasn’t the point I was trying to make – and that there were bad journalists too in the alternative and oppositional media – which also wasn’t the point I was trying to make.

Malaysian journalists

The point I was trying to make then, as is the first point I am trying to make here, is a simple one: that there are good and bad Malaysian journalists or, more to the point, that there are committed journalists and there are self-serving propagandists or, to use a more current term, ‘spin doctors’. My fear then – indeed my fear now – was that the `bad’ were fast outnumbering the `good’ in our mainstream media (both in the press and broadcasting).

Thankfully, in the context of Malaysia, the internet had come into the picture by then, especially with the launching of the Multimedia Super Corridor in 1996 and, of course the accompanying Bill of Guarantees, in which Mahathir’s regime then promised not to censor the internet.

So, what we’ve been experiencing over the past decade or so is the emergence and development of the internet news media, initially and, arguably, even now, most popularly represented by the news portal, Malaysiakini, supplemented by ever-increasing new kids on the block, such as the now-established Malaysian Insider and the more recent Free Malaysia Today. And these organisations, over the period, are increasingly being joined by more personal, individual, but nonetheless informative and well-argued blogs, such as Anil Netto and Uppercaise. Of course, on the other hand, the new media has also enabled unsavoury characters to crawl out of their computer hard drives, hell-bent on upholding the status quo, right or wrong.

Indeed, rather than the new media being purely the site of dissent and insurgent views, it would perhaps be more accurate, in the Malaysian context, to recognise the new media as providing a site for struggle; the struggle of dissenting views; a more open arena, providing a more level playing field.

Clearly, then, any proposal to establish a media council in Malaysia would certainly have to seriously take into consideration the increasingly central role played by internet news gatherers and opinion givers, if not leaders. This notwithstanding, the proposal for a Malaysian media council would also need to learn a bit from earlier discussions and the related power relations influencing these discussions.

Government-led media council?

The case for and against the setting up of a media council in Malaysia, to my knowledge, more often than not, has been couched in language that leads us to believe that there are possibly a couple of scenarios.

The first scenario paints a cosy picture. On the one hand, according to this view, we have a bunch of truly committed, independent-minded journalists or, more, media professionals (including journalists and broadcasters) and, on the other, a benign government that wants to enhance their professionalism by ‘helping’ them to regulate themselves through state-sanctioned regulations, even laws. Laugh, as some of us may, at this scenario, rest assured that there are so-called journalists (and even media academics) in Malaysia, very senior ones at that, who see this as the way forward for a viable Malaysian media council.

Based on the misconception, a feudal misconception even, that governments cannot do wrong, these senior journalists would rather the government determine the shape and structure of such a council. More recently, even some government MPs, including a minister, have taken this line. Indeed, the minister concerned, Information, Communication and Culture Minister Rais Yatim, was reported by the national news agency, Bernama, to have said:

The council would be a platform and forum to forge goodwill and relationship between the government and the media through formulated meetings three times a year. It would also be a medium for the government and the media to discuss and share ideas and plan the development and transformation of the media.

For him, ‘The setting up of the council is expected to comprise all the government industries involved or related to the media, including print, electronic, new media, internet, bloggers, media organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs)’.(Bernama.com, 28 March 2011).

Also recently, after a panel discussion at a local university, UiTM, there was a fairly lengthy exchange in, surprise, surprise, the Utusan Malaysia (UM), between Universiti Petronas academic, Ahmad Murad Merican, the CEO of the Malaysian Press Institute (MPI), and former UM bigwig Chamil Wariya and UM’s Zaini Hassan on the viability of a Malaysian Media Council. Once again, reading through the exchange, what’s disconcerting, though quite predictable, is the constant reference to the Malaysian government, indeed the Malaysian cabinet, as the final arbiter, even at the preliminary stage of deciding on whether such a council will or will not be set up.

Or, media council accountable to the Rakyat?

It is mind-boggling that, given the outright refusal of the regime to consider appeals to amend, let alone repeal, the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), we still have individuals who call themselves journalists and academics kissing up to the regime.

This, indeed, has been the sore point for many independent-minded journalists, academics and civil society organisations who, rightly, point out that there are so many unnecessary and undemocratic controls in place already on the Malaysian media and that a media council formulated by government-friendly organisations and subject to the approval of the government would only lead to another layer of control.

This leads me to the second scenario, one that believes that the principal aim of a media council would be to provide the Malaysian public with the means to hold the media (press and broadcasting) accountable for their actions – their reportage and their depictions of individuals and groups. Such a council would enable those hard done by the media to seek redress.

Of course such a council would then be looking at the question of media ethics as well. And given what has been happening in and to our news organisations, given the rot that has set in, given the racism and bigotry that has become commonplace indeed acceptable in these organisations for almost 30 years at least, I would hope readers will share my belief, to paraphrase Sam Cooke, that a change has got to come.

I would like now to turn quickly to what I consider to be the main constraints and issues that will need to be addressed and negotiated by those wishing to develop a credible Malaysian media council. The first of these is the legal environment.

Coercive laws and censorship

There’s an old, running joke about freedom in Malaysia that goes something like this: in Malaysia there’s freedom of speech, but no freedom after speech.

And, as with many enduring jokes, there’s more than an element of truth in this one. After all, you may say – or write, film or broadcast – as many critical things as you may want to about the regime and its cronies, but, as sure as hell, there are a slew of laws out there just waiting to pounce on you just after you do.

Indeed, heading the pecking order is the Internal Security Act (ISA). A relic from the ‘good old days’, the ISA was initially aimed at weeding out and destroying the then ‘communist insurgents’ deemed to be anti-national and a threat to national security.

Of course, as we all know, the communists have long since gone (with the possible exception of poor old Chin Peng, who’s now not even allowed to come back home either to visit or to die), so they are now as much of a threat as the Boogie Man.

But the ISA remains – and has been abused on numerous occasions to silence politicians, critical academics, members of civil society, assorted religious ‘oddballs’, and the occasional recalcitrant journalist and/or blogger. The ‘marvel’ of the ISA in this modern, democratic era is that it allows indefinite detention without trial, unlimited incarceration without your defence being called.

Hard on the heels of the ISA are other equally jolly acts like the Sedition Act (1948) which, among other things, will allow you to be punished by the courts for uttering or printing, publishing, selling, reproducing or distributing ‘seditious publications’.

Then there’s the Official Secrets Act (OSA)(1972), that contains some really James Bond-type jargon such as ‘foreign agent’, ‘munitions of war’, ‘spying’ and ‘armed forces’. The OSA basically enables the government – and its officers – to determine the sensitivity (and level of secrecy) of government documents.

For silencing the press, there’s the ever-popular Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) (1984), which every newspaper man and woman worth his/her salt fears more than the taxman. This Act can relieve a newspaper of its all-important (and annually renewable) licence, effectively terminating it. And, often enough, we have seen how the PPPA has been used, from 1987’s Operasi Lallang to the present to shut up naughty press boys and girls.

And, of course it doesn’t stop there in this sledgehammer country of ours. The 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act makes sure that the already compliant broadcast industry remains so. And it also helps to extend the reach of the authorities to cover the new media of the internet – despite the much-heralded Bill of Guarantees that talks about the ‘freedom’ of the internet.

And whatever the talk about setting up a Speakers’ Corner in every local public university, the existence of the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) (1971) makes sure that such corners will more likely be used for public declarations of love (for a lover, the university, the government and, of course, God) than for any serious political exchanges.

So, it would seem that there are enough laws in what some Malaysians now prefer to call 1MalaysiaBolehland to make sure that only proper things are written, only the right words are uttered.

Indeed, what these overwhelming laws manage to do is to create an environment of self-censorship, where writers and assorted personnel in the media keep within narrow parameters, certainly fearful for their jobs if not for their liberty.

All this, of course, operates in what we would like to kid ourselves is a democracy. And this goes beyond the factual to the fictional as well, as the members of the esteemed Malaysian Film Censorship Board will assure you.

Effective 15 March last year, the Home Ministry (yes, the same guys who dish out newspaper licences) provided new film censorship guidelines under four broad categories: ‘religion’, ‘manners and morality’, ‘socio-cultural’ and, the all-encompassing ‘public peace and security’.

But the news that really hit the headlines was that filmmakers can now submit their scripts for approval before shooting begins, thus, on paper, preventing them from having to make expensive cuts in the final product before being granted approval to screen to the public.

If mainstream media reports are to be believed, the majority of filmmakers are ecstatic with this development. At any rate, the point is ours is a country where legal constraints on the media are certainly there and, I believe, need to be bravely and critically addressed first before many of us can even agree on the make-up of a media council.

State and market constraints

What is becoming more evident to many Malaysians, certainly since the early 1980s right through to the emergence and spread of the new media, is that state-market collusion in the Malaysian economy has resulted in greater controls on the mainstream media.

Concentration of media ownership in the hands of companies closely aligned to coalition parties of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition is widely known now. The MCA takeover of The Star last year is but the tip of the iceberg. Even if a conglomerate like Media Prima was not linked to any political party, the fact that it is allowed effectively to own all four of Malaysia’s free-to-air commercial television stations, plus a couple of national newspapers would have set off alarm bells in any society that professes to be democratic. But not so in 1MalaysiaBolehland.

The fact that it can do this, virtually with impunity, is, of course, worrying – for democratic participation certainly and certainly too for the options available to media professionals who are pressured to toe the official line. Monopolies and oligopolies, with political parties as patrons, have a tendency to limit choices, to constrain alternative versions of reality.

Hence, together with the need to critically address unjust and anti-democratic laws, a worthwhile media council would also need to address the issue of media ownership and the unhealthy, undemocratic central role played by political parties.

Socialising young journalists to be subservient and to conform

Finally, I believe we all need to understand that the socialisation of Malaysian journalists and broadcasters does not simply begin when the newbie or cadet steps into a newspaper or broadcasting organization.

For many years now, the many media practitioners working in these organisations in Malaysia have been sourced from media/communication departments in local universities.

Many, if not all, local universities – and also private wannabe universities – indeed fall over themselves trying to be at the forefront of providing the labour force for the media/communication market.

Over the many years I have worked in this academic environment, I have seen how many of the policy makers in these departments are constantly in awe of top media editors and owners, desperately wanting their acknow-ledgement, indeed approval, of the courses being offered at the universities/colleges concerned.

This fawning approach has had – and, unfortunately, continues to have – its repercussions.

First, it has made many of these courses and programmes subservient to the needs of these editors and owners. The main problem with this, of course, is that it has the tendency to result in many courses being designed primarily to suit the needs of these media organisations.

This presents a problem for a number of reasons.

In the first place, it impinges upon and further diminishes the autonomy of these programmes. We all too often talk of university autonomy in terms of autonomy from the government or the state. But there is also need for autonomy from the market with its emphasis on the bottom line.

Just as the market – or the need to make a profit – impinges on the autonomy of media organisations, so too can subservience to the needs of the industry impinge further on the already-limited autonomy of universities.

Now this would be fine if the industry were a perfect one, without need for improvement or change. But going by experience and even ongoing practices, of course it is not.

In the second place, simply focusing on the requirements of the industry results in conformity – the very antithesis of creativity.

Currently, there is hardly a journalism or broadcasting department in local universities that veers away from the tried and tested. Hence, before the poor students even start in the real media world, they are already bombarded with so many ‘don’ts’. It is therefore of little surprise that they are so jaded and lack idealism by the time they do step into the newsroom.

Hence, many of you more senior journalists may have seen young cikus in the newsroom, with freshly-minted communication degrees, trying hard to avoid covering the ‘hard’ news, conniving instead to write for the leisure pages, interviewing media stars, and going on travel junkets. And after a couple of years, many simply move on to greener pastures.

Often, many are accused of having an ‘attitude’. This, indeed, is the common complaint about many new graduates – that their demands are far greater than their contributions.

But such an attitude, far from having psychological or individual origins, could easily have been framed, indeed shaped by a wider socialisation process throughout their schooling and at tertiary level.

This ongoing process of socialisation encourages, indeed privileges, conformity and certainly could be the main source of the problem.

It could be argued that this is the norm in most heavily-controlled societies where it is constantly drilled into us to have blind faith in those dominating us; often for the sake of God, king, race, religion and country, of course, though not necessarily in that order.

In this regard, the question that a media council would need to address at some point in time would be: are we now reaping what we – or the system – have sowed? That all these deliberate attempts at cultivating conformity have indeed resulted in increasing mediocrity?

Council with teeth – or a rubber stamp?

In conclusion, let’s ask the question that appears in the title of this paper: ‘Who minds the minders?’. A media council with teeth would certainly need to not only address the wrongs of the Malaysian media but would also go further and address the underlying causes of the malaise.

Powerful political and economic interests are clearly involved. Addressing these interests could, of course, lead to difficulties, as the recently sacked Utusan Malaysia journalist and current president of the NUJ, Ha’ta Wahari, will tell us. But, really, the alternative, while easier, would invariably make the media council nothing more than a rubber stamp for those interests.

This is a revised version of a keynote presentation at the National Union of Journalists Malaysia (NUJ)-Global Forum for Media Development International Media Council Forum. Kuala Lumpur, 8 April, 2011.

Zaharom Nain heads the Centre for the Study of Communications and Culture (CSCC) at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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23 Jul 2011 2.27pm

The 4th estate will need to run for candidacy or else we are finished. Zaharom Nain would you endorse the below 3 items and run for candidacy?

1) Freedom from Apartheid/Fascism
2) Freedom from Religious-Persecution/Religious-Supremacy.
3) Equality for all ethnicities and faiths in all aspects of policy, Law and Constitution.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x