Shooting at election talk, can the real media please stand up?

September 19, 2007
Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ)
27C Jalan Sarikei, off Jalan Pahang
53000 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03 4023 0772
Fax: 03 4023 0769

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Two people, Suwandi Abdul Ghani, 37, and Muhamad Azman Aziz, 21 suffered from gun shot wounds as a result of the confrontation in Terengganu on 8-9 September at what was to be a gathering to talk about free and fair elections. Fortunately for them, they are said to be doing fine.
However, a third victim, by the name of credibility of the media, is still in critical condition, sustaining a more serious injury, and with no fast recovery in sight.

The confrontation and its reporting by the mainstream media are anecdotal of how newsmakers in Malaysia are constantly tested on their professional and ethical standards. Coverage of this incident pointed in one direction – bias towards the powers-that- be. Opposition parties PAS and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) were largely implicated in the mainstream media as instigating the incident. The parties protested loudly, with PKR demanding the New Straits Times to publicly apologize within 48 hours or face legal repercussions. PKR complained that the NST did not contact the party to verify the supposed violent acts by its supporters.
Across dailies, this bias was glaring. Immediate reports about the confrontation in the Star, theSun (which published a BERNAMA report), Utusan Malaysia, Harian Metro, Berita Harian and major Chinese language dailies were based primarily on statements by the Terengganu police chief, Ayub Yaakob. He described it as a riot deliberately initiated by opposition supporters and the police shooting was a forced measure of self-defense.
It was only on September 13 that the newspapers made any mention of BERSIH, a coalition of civil society groups, supported by opposition parties for free and fair elections, who organized the event as part of its public awareness campaign. BERSIH also submitted a complaint regarding the media bias to SUHAKAM.
Although the various newspapers relied on the same source, the September 10 reports were peppered with inconsistencies, calling their professionalism into question. Differences in the number of the participants at the “ceramah”, the timeline of the incidents, accounts of the shooting, and reasons for the police rejection of the permit for the gathering. In the latter, the reasons cited ranged from the venue being a tourist area (the Star); it was small and close to government quarters (Utusan, Berita Harian, NST), and near the palace of the Agong’s mother and a judge’s residence (Harian Metro).
From September 11 onwards, the opposition parties got more coverage in some of the Chinese dailies. The Star, theSun, NST and Utusan published comments by DAP leader Lim Kit Siang, who was not present at the venue, but not the leaders of PAS and PKR. Lim called for an inquiry into the incident. The focus in the media reports has since shifted to condemning those who burnt the national flag, after a widely publicized picture attributable to BERNAMA. The one-sided tone against the opposition parties was still obvious.
The police themselves revealed the inconsistencies on September 15, when they were reported to seek the public’s help in identifying nine men believed to be involved in the violent acts, and released their pictures. This time around, police backed down from relating them to the opposition parties. The media too, without the certainty of the police, refrained from further implicating the opposition, and expectedly, did not pursue the line of doubt cast on the police.
The coverage of this incident shows that the media are still unable to free themselves from the conventional bias prevalent at times of election.
Was the lack of fair reporting due to a lack of resources in terms of reporters available to cover the story accurately? Is the media satisfied with attributing their stories to a single source, in this case the Terengganu police chief, as the only authority? Were the media told to play up the “riot” but not the other side of the story? Would some of the newspapers have settled for the official report because they were under pressure? These are questions that are being floated.
The discerning public knows now where to look for the full story, and it is not the mainstream media – it is the many online dailies and blogs that offer more sides to a story. Whether they are credible or not is besides the point. The point is that the mainstream media is not seen as credible because they do not even abide by the fundamental principles of ethical journalism – fairness, accuracy, right of reply and truthfulness.
The media cannot afford to continue with their current practices if they hope to secure the trust of the readers, who are increasingly knowledgeable, critical and tech-savvy. They have to start taking public opinion seriously and improve the way they do their work. There is no excuse not to provide fair and accurate reports, unless there is government pressure against it. If the newspapers are serious about their ethical values, they will be surprised to find many among the public who will stand up to defend them against external threats. After all, a free and fair media is the right of the citizen.
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Gayathry Venkiteswaran
Kuala Lumpur