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Whither the Malaysian Press?

Journalism is a difficult profession in Malaysia. But certainly not as bad as in some countries where journalists are imprisoned, kidnapped, tortured and even murdered. Nevertheless, we do face impediments peculiar to our society.

Our Sword of Damocles is the Printing Presses and Publications Act, which confers absolute power on the Home Minister to control the print media.

There are more than 30 other laws which restrict our freedom of speech and expression.

The most known are the laws pertaining to sedition, defamation, contempt of court and official secrets.

Many others are less known. For example, a reporter who wishes to share his happy experience with a new drug or medical procedure may find himself prosecuted for an offence under the Medicines (Advertisement and Sale) Act.

And when the law is infringed, wittingly or otherwise, the courts are seldom empathetic.

The Malaysian judiciary is not renowned for courage in the last few decades.

Some judges did not appreciate the role of the media, and ruinous damages had been awarded for libel. Fortunately, judges do their work in the full glare of publicity, and risk exposing their bad judgments to public contempt.

More deleterious to journalism are the civil servants who make daily decisions that undermine freedom of the press, without being accountable to the public. These officials have the power, but are not well equipped to wield this power judiciously or wisely.

And when these civil servants are backed by like-minded political masters, who are driven by private agendas or are just plain deficient, the result is most unpleasant.

Of course, some of these constraints are justified sometimes. The media are certainly not saints.

While many people cannot pass the day without the media, others despise it and resent its power. As the author Oscar Wilde complained of the English press: "Somebody--was it Burke?--called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism."

While navigating the treacherous waters of the law, the courts, the civil servants and the politicians, we have to produce a newspaper that our readers will pay to read.

Chinese-language newspapers face even more problems. Their primary audience is the Chinese community. But this emphasis on Chinese-centric issues in the context of a multi-racial society is regarded as insular and chauvinistic by the other communities. Seized with this mindset, some civil servants see a demon in every shadow in the Chinese media.

Another bugbear of the Chinese media is the inferior status accorded to the Chinese language, thereby granting scant regard for the job of Chinese Editors. Chinese newspapers have to waste time pandering to junior civil servants and minor politicians who make ridiculous demands.

But the biggest problem facing the newspapers all over the world today is the internet. It has democratized news. News is no longer the monopoly of the news organizations. Newspapers in many countries are experiencing declines in circulations and advertising revenues. Fortunately, Chinese newspapers in Malaysia are spared at this stage.

So what do we do? The first thing to do is to stop whining.

Yes, the Printing Presses and Publications Act must go. In this age of the Citizen Reporter, who can be Everyone and Everywhere, it is obsolete and irrelevant, and should thereby be abolished.

But we must live and work within the constraints of the laws which restrict freedom of speech in Malaysia.

No country can afford unfettered freedom of speech and expression, especially a country like ours, with our fragile multi-racial, multi-religious, social fabric. Even England has a law forbidding speech that is likely to cause racial hatred or disharmony, and various laws restricting speech, assembly and association, and dissemination of information. The US, the bastion of freedom, does not prohibit free speech, but has laws to punish abuse of such freedom. As some wise men said, the US has freedom of speech, but often no freedom after speech.

The Malaysian Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, but it does not guarantee freedom of the press. So journalists have no more rights than the man in the street. But they do have a heavier responsibility, for the simple reason that they have a bigger audience.

The next thing we must do is to look within ourselves as journalists.

In the US and some other countries, journalists are among the least trusted professionals, because of ethical breaches. In Malaysia, newspapers of all languages are facing common problems, such as: inadequate language; decline in writing skills; incomplete reporting; poor editing; questionable news judgment and inaccurate reporting.

Of course, we wish the others would change too. Civil servants, for example, must be better equipped to deal with the mass media. They must know where their right to control ends and the public’s right to know begins. They must allow intelligent debate, so that we can join the ranks of the free, informed and progressive nations.

The Chinese press pursue in our own way the national objective of racial harmony and integration. Do not be suspicious of our every move or utterance.

Judges, too, must accept the role of a reputable and responsible press, in this age of free and instant information. Today, bad decisions and injudicious remarks in court can be instantly and widely disseminated and subjected to public scrutiny. The discerning public will not wait for newspapers and legal journals to make up their minds , no matter what the superior courts will decide ultimately.

It is contempt of court to do anything that may pervert the course of justice. But it is not an offence to analyse and criticize a judgment without condemning the judge personally or ridiculing the judicial system.

One can only hope that more legal scholars will lead the way here.

Politicians also need to change. Their unbridled powers must be exercised wisely. Muzzling the press will only drive their readers to the New Media.

But, ultimately, the survival of the traditional media, otherwise known as Mainstream Media, depends on how we ourselves respond to the challenges and opportunities of the Internet. So where do we go from here?

The more established Mainstream Media have advantages over the New Media: credibility and resources. The Mainstream Media have the infrastructure and the financial resources to support their operations. We have reputations developed and burnished over decades. Readers trust and believe us.

The New Media are very readable indeed. And they can be highly persuasive too. But, honestly, do you really believe most of the outrageous and sensational stories they publish?

The New Media are excellent in providing instant information as the news event is unfolding. They are reporting history as it is being made, minute by minute, and defying us to report it inaccurately.

If we Mainstream Media got our facts wrong, we had to face the wrath of our readers, suffer erosion of our credibility, and bear the legal liability.

Notwithstanding the above-mentioned, it is futile for the mainstream media to resist change. Instead, we must manage the transition of our readers from print to digital.

The problem, of course, is how to finance this. Internet users or the Netizens – demand and expect information to be free. Mainstream Media are all trying different ways to make money from the massive traffic on the internet.

But the direction is clear.

We are part of the global village. We cannot stop the world and get off. We must adapt to the changing times. (By C.C LIEW/MySinchew)

(C.C. LIEW is Group Managing Director of Sin Chew Media Corporation. He was a secretary general of the National Union of Journalists, and Editor-in-Chief of Sin Chew Daily.)

MySinchew 2010.05.16


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