Batu Burok: Something rotten in Fourth Estate

Helen Ang (Malaysiakini)
Sep 20, 07 12:41pm

On the bloody incident at Pantai Batu Burok, the prime minister had this to say and was duly quoted in NST: “They (Opposition supporters) would provoke the police until stern action is taken and then they would cry foul”.
Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s callous comment on inviting police brutality as a campaign tactic is reminiscent of Dr Mahathir Mohamed’s off-the-wall innuendo that Anwar Ibrahim had socked his own self in the eye while in police custody.

The sitting PM and his men ensconced in media failed to commiserate with the unarmed victims who were shot by police and others injured in Terengganu – it’s lucky that bullets did not hit them in more vital organs to disable or kill.
Instead Abdullah chose to accuse the Opposition of “trying to do nasty things to tarnish the government and the police” (because they are jealous of BN bringing about Terengganu’s rapid development – shades of the incomparable Mahathir again!) and “spoiling the rakyat’s Merdeka celebrations”. (NST, Sept 12)
Mainstream media have uncritically carried such comments which are increasingly becoming characteristic of Abdullah’s incredible inanity. Readers are surely not as unquestioning as Malaysian reporters.
One eyewitness account carried in Malaysiakini flatly contradicts the self-serving version by police of the shooting. But mainstream English media have failed to show an initiative in interviewing local residents. They are more interested in assisting police do damage control. Furthermore in these pro-establishment papers, those who have had their voices aired on the incident are Umno politicians.
This is what I know from the Ghost of Career Past – my class of 40-odd cadet journalists was told by our NST trainer: Always obtain the ‘facts’ from police or relevant authority. Always quote the ranking officer or official on estimating crowd numbers, tracing the event or getting authoritative comments.
What this editorial fiat means is that authority is always vouchsafed as infallible. A reporter is not to trust his own eyes and ears when filing his report, if what he sees and hears is at odds with what the government says. Therefore, because of their habituation in deferring to authority, the story told by well-trained reporters in Malaysian media to the well-trained Malaysian public is the BN-approved take.
Making cautious of us all
Local media showed their eagerness to serve the government agenda by wholeheartedly supporting the witch hunt for flag burners. While Umno and MCA have offered a bounty on the flag torcher’s head, their papers are printing ‘Most Wanted’ pictures of the suspects.
Abdullah is trying to have it both ways when he insists that the national flag is a symbol of the country. He asks ‘What did the Jalur Gemilang do to them”, implying that the flag was not a symbol of the BN for protesters to vent at. Nobody disputes that a national flag is representative of country but as to Abdullah’s rhetoric, think ‘privatising profits, nationalising losses’.
The PM showed ‘Leadership by Example’ in nepotism through having his son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin hoist the national flag on the stroke of midnight Aug 31 recently. Why not the wholesome Siti Nurhaliza or Nicol David to raise the flag as the flower of Malaysian youth? The entire affair of Independence Day was appropriated by the BN. The 50th Merdeka was a commemoration imbued with ruling party overtones.
Abdullah’s comment on the national flag should be seen against BN’s ‘lembu punya susu, sapi punya nama’ claims on infrastructure projects. At the construction site of a public facility or amenity, there is always the familiar signboard proclaiming: “This is a Barisan Nasional project (for the rakyat). The signboard does not say “this is a project funded by national revenue/taxpayer’s money”.
So it’s the national flag when it suits Abdullah and a symbol twinned with BN when it suits him too. If the flag burners were genuine, they probably saw the flag as a BN-Umno emblem and who can blame them?
The Fourth Estate is supposed to be public watchdog, not hunting dog set on the scent of flag burners. With regard to the former function, they have failed to address the repercussions on civil society to engage in participatory democracy following the Terengganu shooting by police.
Now that Malaysians, especially the cautious Chinese, realise that to take part in public gatherings not organised by or associated with BN implies braving not only the batons, tear gas and water cannons, but now whizzing live bullets, how many citizens will be willing to venture from their bunkers to make a public stand on pressing issues?
The objectionable aspects of Batu Burok have many things to do with police powers and the perception that police are Umno’s secret cells. A cause for present outrage however is that the people gathered at Batu Burok were not staging an anti-government demonstration or plotting a violent overthrow of the regime. They were just there to learn more about how elections are misconducted in this country.
Fence-sitting is not an option
I make no bones that I’m anti-Barisan Nasional and offer no apology for my polemical writing being unfavourable of BN. The rest of this essay will dwell on why I don’t see my partisanship as a problem and on the bigger problem which is biased reporting.
Editorial comment is allowed to be partisan as leading papers like New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal have endorsed or leaned towards preferred polices or candidates, be they liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. The Economist even took Malaysia to task for our ‘official racism’ in its op-ed on Merdeka recently.
Columns which are opinions ought not to be confused with straight (or bent) reporting. Like the rest of my fellow columnists in this forum, we’re all not really ‘in’ journalism per se, having as we do varied backgrounds in diverse professions. I’ve left the journalism industry and am now in an unrelated field of work.
Some self-styled ‘objective’ columns with political content, however, are penned by full-time employees on the payroll of mainstream media organisations. One of the points raised in the Spirit of Merdeka movement declaration signed by more than 60 civil society organisations is that “increasingly too, journalists have become victims of the controls exerted by the political leadership and their business partners, or have engaged in biased reporting.”
My reading of the situation is that by the very act of selecting where our writing should appear, we are choosing sides already. There’s no escape from bias in media. In the area of national politics, the Malay press panders to the religious right and narrow sentiments. Vernacular papers have their communitarian tack.
Malaysiakini has been accused of being pro-Opposition – not neutral and not balanced. I see Malaysiakini as trying to restore some semblance of balance to a very tilted and rigged playing field. But you decide.
Giving journalism his bad name
Bias is a human frailty not confined to Malaysian journalists alone. One of the world’s most famous reporters living is Robert Fisk. Inasmuch as this award-winning journo has many admirers, he has an equal number of detractors, and his own peers have gainsaid Fisk’s faulty, self-aggrandising memory of himself and events he covered in the Middle East.
In fact, Fisk has lent his name to the English lexicon in the footsteps of other exceptional or notorious men.
Among them are Marquis de Sade (sadist, sadism), John Bobbitt (bobbitt), Vidkun Quisling (quisling), Elbridge Gerry (gerrymander, i.e. Massachusetts Governor ‘Gerry’ + ‘mander’; after his party redistricted the state in 1812 causing the map of Essex County to resemble a salamander), Thomas Bowdler (bowdlerise), Franz Kafka (Kafkaesque), George Orwell (Orwellian) and many more.
Fisking or to fisk, according to Wikipedia “is blogosphere slang describing detailed point-by-point criticism that highlights errors, disputes the analysis of presented facts, or highlights other problems in a statement, article, or essay” and the word has evolved into expanded usage like ‘counter-fisk’, a ‘fiskee’ or a ‘fisker’.
Fisk earned this dubious distinction through his unreliable reporting, “carelessness with facts” and has been held as “spinning shiny stories in the air” by one of his earliest critics to use/coin the term fisk. The articles of this British reporter with The Independent are a favourite fodder for fisking (dissection).
Exercising due diligence
At the end of the day, writers and reporters with a cause may be moved, from their own deepest convictions, to the type of articles they produce. This compulsion is a positive corollary to bias.
Turkish journalist Hrant Dink was shot dead early this year by a nationalist for questioning Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide, considered a crime of ‘insulting’ the country under article 301 of its penal code.
Of some relevance to us too is Dink’s separate and earlier prosecution for ‘denigrating Turkishness’, deriving from his comments on a portion of the lyrics in Turkey’s national anthem.
Dink was a prominent member of Turkey’s Armenian minority (decimated in 1915 when an estimated one million were killed in massacres by the Turks), a leftist and Christian. He was critical of state injustices and state discrimination across the board. He was mourned by 100,000 people at his funeral where marchers protested the assassination.
At the end of the day too, it’s up to the reader, listener or viewer to apply a healthy dose of scepticism. People respond differently to the same material. For instance, Marina Mahathir (left) had only praise for a Michael Moore film and enthused in her Star column (Sept 2003): “I really wish someone would show the movie ‘Bowling for Columbine’ here.”
In a two-part article Fiddler of the Truth, I unravelled Moore’s duplicity and deceit in ‘Bowling’. His fans brazenly pass off Moore’s films as documentary and investigative reporting – to which I say ‘And the tooth fairy has her holiday home in Selayang’.
Anyone can borrow or buy the ‘Bowling’ video and play it for themselves, and if you like, use as a fact-check guide my meticulous debunking (albeit unoriginal; many Moore Watch critics to whom real credit is due are cited in my extensive footnotes). It’s an instructive exercise in uncovering how sneaky narrators can be, the sort of tricks they resort to and the type of Malaysians they manage to fool.
Abdullah fits the criteria of a deserving fiskee. Malaysian mainstream reporters covering the PM, especially on his overseas trips, are regrettably more his entourage than conscientious fiskers. The PM, his deputy and those in the BN family business are the stuff of shiny stories spun in the air by mainstream media. They – BN storytellers and their BN scribes who puff them – are good for a fisking.