IN 2001, after three years of investigations and interviewing hundreds of journalists, leading media practitioners Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel wrote The Elements of Journalism, now a reference point for what is good journalism.
One of Kovach and Rosenstiel’s principles was that a journalist’s first loyalty is to citizens. Not its owners, advertisers or even consumers, but “to a social obligation that at times overrides their employers’ immediate interests…” The authors also quoted former Washington Post publisher Eugene Meyer who said this: “In pursuit of the truth, the newspaper shall be prepared to make sacrifices of its material fortunes, if such a course be necessary for the public good.”
But whom did the Malaysian traditional media serve in their recent coverage of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih 2.0) and its 9 July 2011 rally? What would the reporting have looked like if the media had lived up to their social obligation to inform the people fairly, comprehensively and accurately of Bersih-related events? And what did the coverage instead look like?
How our media performed
Here is some information that would have helped the public make up their own minds about Bersih 2.0. Against that is an assessment of how some of the traditional media performed.
* Bersih’s demands
What was needed: The most crucial piece of information about the planned Bersih march was probably this: What was Bersih marching for? What was it all about? Were their claims justified and legitimate? This would not have been difficult to discover — Bersih’s eight specific demands for a cleaner and fairer election process in Malaysia has been publicised through its website, press statements and public fora. Among others, Bersih’s demands are: a clean-up of the electoral roll; reform of the postal ballot; a minimum 21-day campaign period; and freer and fairer access to the media.
What was done: Newspapers hardly mentioned Bersih’s demands. As the police stepped up their pre-emptive action against Bersih’s planned peaceful rally, a Bernama report in The Star even stopped referring to the march as the Bersih rally. Instead, the report called it the “illegal assembly planned for July 9”. In the first mention, they also did not refer to Bersih by its full name, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, thereby making it difficult for a casual reader to ascertain what the march was all about.
* The government’s concerns
What was needed: The Barisan Nasional (BN) government and the authorities demonstrated great concern over, even opposition toward, the planned march. This was purportedly because the walk was a threat to public order and national security. However, some historical context would have perhaps provided another perspective. The November 2007 Bersih march was held shortly before the March 2008 general election, which saw great opposition gains. Pakatan Rakyat politicians have pledged support for the second march. Additionally, in recent decades, the authorities under BN-rule have repeatedly used heavy-handed tactics to stifle street protests, especially when it involves criticisms against the government.
What was done: The traditional press provided ample column space to BN and the authorities to voice their fear-mongering concerns without any background provided. Previous rallies have created “chaos”, Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein was reported as saying. There would be “mob psychology” where people from different backgrounds could cause “anarchy”, said Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak. The rally organisers are “desperate”, want to stir up dissent and “seize power”, said Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim. The rally could cause “chaos, destruction to property, injuries and even the possibility of loss of lives,” Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Ismail Omar was reported to have said.
The Star, in translating an Utusan Malaysia report, reproduced the label for the march as an “opposition-initiated” rally. On its own, it also declared that the civil society-led movement was “Opposition-initiated”. This was even though Bersih organisers have repeatedly stressed that Bersih 2.0, since it was launched, is entirely a civil society movement without political parties in its steering committee so that it can be completely independent.
* The legal position
What was needed: The Federal Constitution is the supreme law of the land. Article 10(1) guarantees citizens’ rights to express themselves and peacefully assemble. Article 10(2) however allows Parliament to set restrictions it deems necessary and expedient in the interests of “security” or “public order”. One such restriction is the Police Act, which requires gatherings of three or more people to apply for a permit.
Lawyers and human rights organisations however have pointed out that restrictions cannot render the right illusory and requiring a permit could arguably go too far and be unconstitutional. There have been repeated calls, including by the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam), to abolish the need for police permits for peaceful assemblies. A comprehensive media analysis on the relevant laws, with opinions from lawyers, the police, human rights activists and legal experts, would have been extremely useful to the public.
What was done: Illegal, illegal, illegal. News reports in The Star and New Straits Times simply assumed that the planned demonstration was illegal and reported it as such. They also reported Hishammuddin’s incredible declaration that Bersih t-shirts were illegal and the arrests of people in yellow t-shirts without any commentary on whether this had any legal basis.
Other worrying trends
Far from portraying a comprehensive account, newspapers such as Utusan Malaysia seemed to bend over backwards to demonise Bersih 2.0. Utusan also published sensational allegations about Bersih by relying on anonymous sources. One allegation stated that Bersih was being funded by foreign Christian organisations, a charge denied by Bersih 2.0 chairperson Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan. Another said foreign agents possibly with communist links had infiltrated Bersih. And yet another Utusan report said Bersih was supported by non-governmental organisations that intended to overthrow the Malaysian government. No explanations were given as to why Utusan had to rely on anonymous sources, thereby putting the credibility of these stories in doubt.
More worryingly still, an Utusan Malaysia editorial urged the government to violate human rights by detaining without trial those involved in Bersih under the Internal Security Act. Another editorial under the pseudonym Awang Selamat congratulated the police for using the draconian Emergency (Public Order and Prevention of Crime) Ordinance, which also allows for detention without trial, against six Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) members.
Perhaps Utusan editors may think differently, but wouldn’t it require a supreme stretch of the imagination to construe championing detention without trial as serving public interest first and foremost?
For certain, the threat of closure by the government and the pressure from political owners seriously hampers our traditional media’s ability to be loyal to citizens above anyone else.
But it is alarming how in this instance, some newspapers completely abandoned their role in comprehensively informing citizens about an issue of great public interest. Instead, they provided skewed accounts, omitted to ask glaring and crucial questions, and even acted against public interest by condoning human rights violations.
This merely illustrates how essential Kovach and Rosenstiel’s principle of “first loyalty to citizens” is for good journalism. It also highlights how any other formula can destroy the media’s role in serving public interest, and its credibility. Perhaps, apart from a Bersih 2.0 rally, there is also a need for a Bebas 1.0 walk for greater press freedom?