February 16, 2013
Journalism for a Free Society
by Eric Loo (02-15-13) @http://www.malaysiakini.com
It’s been years since I last bought and read the mainstream papers. I thought I’d give it a go during my week’s stay in Penang for Chinese New Year.
Besides the usual sycophantic reporting of ludicrous comments by BN politicians, the mainstream papers have, again, failed in fairly representing the public sentiment.
For instance, the Prime Minister’s eager attempt to engage with the Penang crowd at BN’s Chinese New Year open day at Han Chiang College on February 11.
‘Najib wins over crowd in Penang,’ says the NST headline. ‘A tight slap in Najib’s face,’ says Malaysiakini. Same event, different takes.
You have to be in Penang to know which take is closer to actuality, although journalists’ perceptions are not immune to ideological sway, thus the selective coverage. What I heard and saw was not what I read in the mainstream papers.
Waxing nostalgic with relatives and friends, we bantered on how many more seats BN would lose this time round, the Penangites’ angst for BN, the public relations disaster for Najib and the ‘million dollars’ wasted on a four-minute pointless act by a one-hit wonder to woo the Chinese votes.
Shortly after Psy’s prancing with his all white-clad Gangnam troupe, I received an email alert to a YouTube clip of Najib’s attempt to muster the youngish crowd.
Felled, buried, in cyberspace
The ‘Are you ready for Psy/BN’ clip had recorded more than 95,000 views as of February 13. Not one mention of Najib’s gaffe in the mainstream papers, although the NST published a letter from Penang BN’s chairperson Teng Chang Yeow (February 13) that sections of the crowd did yell ‘Yes’.
Indeed, there were ‘Yeses’ and ‘Noes’ depending on where you stood in the crowd. The fact is the ‘Noes’ were louder and the ‘Boos’ clearer. ‘Aiyah, why you still buy the government papers?’ a friend asked.
‘Boycott them. Go-lah online,’ another chipped in as I flicked through the papers looking for editorials and commentaries that would pass muster for reflective analyses, or at least, inspire the average reader to ponder what we, the people, should do to hold politicians accountable and cause fundamental changes in the system for the benefit of all.
Here, I seek some inspiration from journalism practised in places where, in spite of death threats, the journalists will stay on course to expose corrupt and philandering politicians.
I copy below an excerpt from an interview I did late last year for a book on journalism training in Asia with, Yvonne Chua, one of the founders of VERA Files, a non-profit news outlet in Manila.
Yvonne has trained journalists from Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, Nepal and Mongolia.
Vital ingredients in shaping journalists
I asked her what she saw are the critical training needs of journalists from developing countries.
She said in part: “Training programmes should, beyond imparting skills, untiringly emphasise the role of journalism in a free society – which nearly all countries claim to have – so journalists can live up to this role and assert their rights, including pushing the limits of press freedom.
“I know the media landscape across the globe is highly uneven, brought about by the diverse political, social and economic milieus that we work in. But the right to freedom of expression – and of the press – is fundamental.”
There appears to be a low awareness among many journalists themselves even of the international guarantees of free expression (Article 19 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) and what it truly means to them.
It also saddens me when it is unclear or unknown to journalists that they owe their allegiance to the public and not government. It is ironic that while many journalists defend the rights of other people, they themselves don’t know their own rights and thus cannot defend these.”
Critical thinking, of utmost importance
“In training journalists, especially on investigative reporting, I always feel the urgency of developing critical thinking skills among them, so they would ‘challenge’ information, particularly spins, from sources. More so with journalists in emerging or new democracies.”
“Helping journalists acquire what we call the ‘documents state of mind’ continues to be a challenge I face as a trainer. Usage of documents is minimal, even nil, for some journalists for various reasons such as the lack of appreciation for document analysis, dearth of training on this, or a question of access.”
“Because investigative reporting turns up voluminous reams of information, many journalists I’ve come across have problems organising and analysing the data, and then transforming this into powerful, compelling stories.
“Many journalists are weak when it comes to long-form journalism, regardless of the medium, so the wealth of data they have amassed is, alas, lost in the poor storytelling. Many also have difficulties visualising data, which is much needed in this day and age of data journalism.”
Journalism in the Philippines was shaped by the nation’s struggle against imperialism, colonial rule, inequality and injustice.
Return to past, inject live in present
Journalism in the 50s in Malaya was likewise shaped by quite similar struggles to break free from British colonial rule.
Today’s brand of journalism should return to the questioning and challenging form of the early post-colonial era, investigating the human condition, exposing the corrupt and asking why the poor, exploited and oppressed were exploited and oppressed, and what we, the people, can practically do to address the situation.
It is the duty of journalists to represent the common people, and give voice to issues that afflict the human condition rather than the fluff and spin that consumerism and political patronage prefer.
ERIC LOO left Malaysia for Australia in 1986 to work as a journalist. He currently lectures at University of Wollongong, Australia, and serves on the advisory committee of UPI Next (http://next.upi.com), a journalism education and training platform run by United Press International. He edits a refereed journal Asia Pacific Media Educator and conducts journalism training workshops in Asia. Email: email@example.com