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What lies ahead for Malaysia’s journalism?

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Utusan Malaysia will have to decide whether it wants to remain a sensationalist paper that mocks journalism standards or a respected daily that reports the truth without fear or favour and holds leaders accountable, writes Mustafa K Anuar.

In a political culture that is increasingly ‘filthy’ by the day, are we expected to count our blessings when on a rare occasion spin masters flirt with the truth?

The recently reported admission by no less than Utusan Malaysia’s deputy chief editor Mohd Zaini Hassan that the daily’s spinning of facts is fine as long as it is aimed at the opposition, is revolting and reprehensible. He made this remark at a forum on social media organised by Biro Tata Negara (BTN) and the 1Malaysia Social Media Convention secretariat.

In case the good editor has completely lost the plot, spinning goes against the very ethics of journalism. To be sure, a journalist has the noble obligation to search for truth and, by extension, to promote social justice. This is of course in stark contrast to a political propagandist, whose raison d’etre is to promote wholeheartedly the image and interests of an individual or a political party, rightly or wrongly.

Spinning, or more specifically lying, in the guise of journalistic writing is surely a bad example for journalists under the watch of the seasoned editor. Perhaps more dangerously, the kind of spin that Utusan Malaysia has been associated with in recent years could cause, and indeed had brought, unnecessary uneasiness and tension between ethnic groups and religious communities in the country.

The daily’s spinning also caused damage and hurt to the reputation of certain public personalities particularly through the use of sexual innuendos. Now, this borders on the kind of sensationalism that certain British tabloids are known for. It certainly does not raise the bar for the standards of journalism in the country.

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Right-thinking Malaysians would find this kind of journalistic sleaze most abhorrent – which explains why some of them have turned away from mainstream newspapers and resorted to online newspapers, blogs and social media tools.

One is mindful of the fact that the authorities have not taken any action so far against the daily’s spinning that has caused social tension in the country in the past. If anything, the authorities’ inelegant silence over this matter is deafening; it appears to have encouraged the newspaper to continue doing what it seems to have grown to do best.

For a newspaper that is supposed to help widen the intellectual horizons of its readers, Utusan has betrayed its Malay-speaking audience. The Malay-language newspaper will have to decide whether it wants to remain a sensationalist paper that mocks journalism standards or a respected daily that reports the truth without fear or favour and holds leaders accountable. The choice is clear for any publication worth its salt.

Dr Mustafa K Anuar is honorary secretary of Aliran

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