Monday, November 15, 2010

Zainul's Viewpoints...

The article below, written by an old friend and former colleague, Datuk Zainul Arifin Mohammed Isa, now Group Managing Editor of the New Straits Times Group, appeared in his column "Viewpoints', New Sunday Times, 14 Nov 2010.

I share Zainul's sentiment. As a former journalist, I can't help but feel disappointed by what I see as a knee jerk reaction from a group that unashamedly rides on the 'freedom of the press' wave. As it stands, these are the people to whom 'cakap tak serupa bikin" is a perfect fit.

Media ban is not the way to go

The ban by the Kedah government on selective media outlets suggests that, for some, a free press is good only when they do not become the subject of scrutiny.

The government of Datuk Seri Azizan Abdul Razak issued the directive on Thursday to several print and electronic media outlets, including this newspaper, telling them they are no longer welcome to state events for being guilty of manipulation of news and coverage directed against Kedah.

This followed Azizan's reprimand of journalists earlier in the week at a press conference after a state executive council meeting.

His beef is related to reports of the state government, as opposed to the federal, handling of the recent floods, that were not flattering of the former, and Azizan's stewardship.

The fact that the state is controlled by Pas, a member of the opposition coalition at the federal level, gave such reports, unfortunately, a political flavour.

Now, we are not sure if politics was on top of the minds of those who found themselves wading in water, but due to our ever-politicised environment, the tendency to politicise everything is presumably a given.

Azizan may or may not have an axe to grind but the fact is, the reports were not made up. There were complaints from people who had furniture floating in their living rooms. We, in the media, should not assume the politics of complainants, or their agenda, when reporting.

Kedah is the second state in the Pakatan Rakyat coalition that had issued bans on selective media outlets. This newspaper, and several others, are still persona non grata in functions or events attended by the chief minister of Penang.

As such, I sincerely believe the parties that make up the coalition should just take out freedom of the press from their manifesto and not bother to repeat it when stumping for votes since they do not seem to believe in it.

Backpedalling on such an important campaign promise just because they are unhappy with how some media outlets report them looks bad. So, only have people who write good things about you to be around? Is it not sycophantic toadying?

Motherhood statement, such as championing free press, will get you popular support, since who would not want one? But a free press is like medicine or medical treatment. It is not often nice but you have to go through it just so you would be better. If you are selective in the treatment, it would not have the desired effect.

Worse still, people can see through you. A free press will be a boon, and one must remember also, a bane.

The directives in Kedah and Penang are not isolated. Intolerance towards the media is not uncommon among advocates of the free media. There have been instances when reporters and editors are harangued in public when faced with questions they do not like. Some do out of annoyance of pesky reporters while some others use it to distract from the hard questions, deflecting them by choosing to blame the messenger for the mess he is in.

Some of the most vocal champions of the free press and the ones lamenting on the state of the media environment have been the most abusive of reporters and media outlets when they are back in the thick of controversies.

Having said that, it is, of course, the right of anyone, including politicians, to do what he wants as far as his interaction with the media is concerned - whom he meets and talks to and which organisation he should be seen in.

This is especially true if they feel that they have been wronged, which must be the case involving the chief ministers of Kedah and Penang.

I cannot blame them if they are angry but it does them no good to be barring media outlets, no matter how much, in their opinion, they have been wronged.

Tolerance of the media, I must say, must not be selective, especially when one is propagating a freer media environment. it is like pregnancy; you cannot be selectively pregnant.

In my years in journalism, I have found that many who claimed to be working on the principle of free press would not have any qualms calling for the suppression of news on them. They would talk from the other side of their mouth and would implore that their cases are different and, as such, not be given the publicity. There are individuals on the stump championing openness, yet would call editors and reporters to get stories snuffed.

It is natural, I suppose, wanting to look good.

Making promises and living up to them are two different things. Similarly, wanting changes and making them are different, too.

The ban on selective media is actually a slap to public opinion, as well as public intelligence. We are assuming that the public is not smart enough to see and be able to distinguish between fact and fiction.

Yet, never has the landscape of the media been so much alive and varied, too. For example, the Internet has turned the media industry on its head. Newspapers offering their fare for free online are also their own major competitors these days.

Some people mention with pride, and disdain, that they have not bought a newspaper in a long time or that they have no reason to do so with the Internet. They talk of their lives being so much better now without having to read the lies and propaganda of the newspapers.

To this, I say more power to them. To each his own.

As newspaper companies, we have to win over the public to read our products, to vote with their wallets daily, if you like, whether we are worthy of their effort. We are subjected to the numbers' game and if our numbers slacken, our business will be affected.

The total readership of newspapers in the country runs into the millions, hence how could any media manipulate the facts when there are many news outlets? Some of them are free of charge as well as "freer" to report what they like. This would be a quick recipe for disaster for newspapers, would it not?

Apart from that, there are party organs given away or sold widely that it makes no sense for the media - of either left- or right-leaning, or undecided - to start telling lies.

We, in the media, need to keep to our relevance or else we would make ourselves redundant.

Often times, it is always people who call for openness who will likely be intolerable to others' ideas and opinions. Like they say, so-called liberals are the most resistant and intolerant of others' point of view.

Similarly, I believe parties who cannot subscribe to the idea of a free press should not try to gain political mileage by promoting something they do not believe in.


1 comment:

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