Pepper Lim’s continuing series of articles to his daughter, Paprika.
Recently, I met veteran wartawan (journalist) Terence Fernandez. I have long admired his articles because he writes without much fear or favour. Just like the writers on LoyarBurok, he writes what is on his mind — not what he thinks others want him to write.
We got talking about the daily briefings at KLIA over the disappearance of MAS flight MH370. In the first week of the incident, MAS and the various branches of the government tripped over themselves to shed light on the incident. The world watched as contradictory information was disseminated haphazardly, babbling experts gave complicated viewpoints that could not be understood and government officials cowered away from the press and grief-stricken families.
Terence told me that the foreign media who were covering that news were often left scratching their heads over the press conferences given. However, it seems, Malaysian wartawans were used to such ineptness, and knew how to guess what the officials meant to say.
For example, when asked what the persons who boarded MH370 with stolen passports looked like, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman the DG of Civil Aviation said, “Do you know Balotelli? They look like Balotelli.” Terence said this was typical of local authorities giving press conferences. They would say the first thing that fell out of their mouths and leave it to the wartawans to figure it out. In this case, the local journalists knew he meant to say that the foreigners did not look Asian just as Mario Balotelli — an Italian footballer of Ghanaian descend who was adopted by a Jewish-Italians couple — did not look Italian. However, the foreign journalists are not like our wartawans and reproduced the DG’s statement verbatim, and Malaysia became the laughing stock of the world. Again.
I wonder why Malaysian wartawans report interviews by ‘filling in the blanks themselves’. Is it because they are good at reading the minds of the interviewees? Is it because they are geniuses who did their homework before attending press conferences and thus know what everything there is to know before the press conference? Or is it because they are afraid of repercussions that they simply fill in the blanks with fluff?
I think the last answer is most probable. To understand this, I need to take you back many years to 1987. Actually, the story goes back even further but I will start at 1987 because I remember that year.
In 1987, 107 Malaysians were rounded up by the police overnight. Most were members of the Opposition. The problem started when the Education Ministry appointed about a hundred principals and senior assistants to vernacular Chinese school. This sparked a protest and calls for boycott by MCA, DAP, Gerakan and Dong Jiao Zong.
In response, UMNO Youth held a mass rally of 10,000 people led by its chairman who threatened to bathe his keris in Chinese blood! The government responded by using the Sedition Act on 107 Malaysians and revoked the publishing license of The Star, Sin Chew Jit Poh, The Sunday Star, and Watan.
After that, everyone began to be afraid to speak their mind. Publications started to avoid sensitive issues for fear of being shut down. Wartawans who were afraid of losing their livelihoods were told to clam up by their editors. As a young man, I remember being told to keep my own comments about the situation to myself, lest I be hauled up in the middle of the night by the police.
Today, not only are wartawans afraid of saying the wrong thing and losing their jobs — almost all the newspapers, television stations and radio stations are owned by the government or by pro-government political parties and companies. For example, the most popular English daily newspaper, The Star, is owned by MCA.
Being a controlled medium, all the news always say nice things about the government and suppress embarrassing news about them. News about the Opposition is non-existent except for bad news. No reporter would dream of embarrassing a member of the government. I have even seen news that are made up, with no factual backing! Whatever happened to journalistic integrity?
Malaysia ranks 147 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2014. On the other hand, third world countries such as Estonia and Jamaica are in the Top 20. So how can Malaysia — which boasts of civil liberties, democracy and freedom — be ranked so low?
It is fear.
The wartawans fear of losing their livelihoods. They have been threatened with demotions and denied promotions such as the suspension of Hata Wahari, president of the National Union of Journalists, by Utusan. They have had to endure threats to their families — journalists’ family members are refused “a place at one of the better public universities”. Some have had their homes raided, spent nights in jail and received physical threats.
Zunar had his cartoon book banned by the Home Minsitry in June 2010. Then he was arrested and jailed in September 2010 just before the launch of another cartoon book.
In the meantime, the rakyat is again the big loser. Instead of honest reporting by wartawans and hard-hitting editorials, we are spoon fed news and information that are either tightly controlled, made up, or not forthcoming.
I would rather see honest and open reporting.
If Malaysia’s ‘fourth estate’ played its role as per Jeffrey Archer’s book, “charged with keeping an honest watch on activities of the other states (clergy, nobility and commoner) and itself”, the rakyat can be well informed and use the information presented to think and decide for ourselves.
Right now, we rely on alternative media. We turn to blogs to get an alternative view point.
Dear Paprika, freedom of information is so important for our civil liberties. When information is being sekat, you know something is up. If you have something important to say, say it! There is nothing to fear except fear itself.
Your loving father,
PS: The Education Minister in 1987 was Anwar Ibrahim, and the UMNO Youth Chairman was Najib Razak.