ON 17 June 2010, a startling accusation was made against the Malaysian armed forces. The father of Sergeant N Tharmendran said in a police report that his son, who has been charged with stealing two jet engines from the Sungai Besi air base, was tortured by officers to confess to the theft. The Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) has, of course, since denied the allegations.
Question is, who is more believable? The answer, unfortunately, is that Tharmendran’s story may be more so than the RMAF’s statement. That doesn’t mean that Tharmendran was actually tortured while in custody. It just means that between a Malaysian citizen being held in custody and a government institution or agency, a cynical rakyat is likely to believe the story of torture than it is to believe any official denial.
See, although the revelations in the police report are startling, and should necessarily be, Malaysians are by now all too familiar with unexplained deaths and torture in detention, whether by the police or the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). We are also all too familiar with the lack of transparency over investigations into such claims of abuse of power. Therein lies the lesson that our government so badly needs to learn but seems oh-so-reluctant to: without credibility, nobody is going to believe you even when you tell the truth.
The value of credibility
When I was an environmental journalist for The Star years ago, I would receive phone calls from friends about the severity of the haze and the resultant air pollution. As far as I knew and can attest to, the Department of Environment was accurate in the information it provided the public through the media. And yet despite my assurances, my friends wouldn’t believe the media reports.
I had similar experiences as a journalist during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and avian flu breakouts. The trouble was, Malaysians knew that because the traditional media was controlled by the government, it didn’t or couldn’t always report honestly or accurately. Public interest was not paramount. Instead, political interest was and still is.
This was again amply demonstrated recently by two different reports about a United Nations (UN) delegation’s findings on the Malaysian government’s treatment of detainees. The Associated Press (AP) reported that a UN delegation visiting Malaysia found that police officers tortured and abused detainees to obtain confessions. Headlined UN delegation accuses Malaysian police of torturing, abusing suspects to obtain confessions, the report also quoted the delegation head as saying: “People prefer being in prisons rather than in police custody and immigration centres.” The reason? They felt safer in prison.
Compare that to an 18 June 2010 Bernama report on the same matter. The headline for the Bernama report couldn’t have been more stunningly different: Malaysian Detainees Treated Well – UN Human Rights Group. The report then went on to say that “detainees were in good condition”.
Because Bernama is owned and controlled by the Malaysian government, and the AP is independent of the Malaysian government, who do you reckon is telling a more accurate story? And who do you think has more credibility when it comes to reporting on a damning account of Malaysia’s poor human rights track record?
How is credibility measured? Two things popped up for me when a colleague posed that question. One was the power relationships involved. For example, the traditional media has lost much of its earlier credibility because it is owned and controlled by the Barisan Nasional (BN) government. Hence the traditional media is viewed as incapable of reporting fearlessly and fairly when it comes to the powerful interests within the BN.
The other ingredient of credibility, for me, is consistency. How consistent is government action compared to government announcements? Do we, for example, believe that the administration under Datuk Seri Najib Razak will really replace race-based policies with needs-based affirmative action? Where is the evidence that Najib’s announcements and promises are credible?
How consistently does the information provided answer questions that have been raised? For instance, how many of us really believe that no Malaysian tax money was spent, whether directly or indirectly, in Najib’s wife, Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, being honoured and feted in the US with a peace and harmony award of unclear worth?
How consistent is brand 1Malaysia? Is every word and deed by the Najib administration convincing us that 1Malaysia is for real? Are we convinced that 1Malaysia isn’t just a public relations gimmick that glosses over serious rights issues that minority groups face, such as the right to use “Allah” and the right to equal opportunities?
For certain, being transparent, fair and honest are good ways to ensure one’s credibility. That’s why the best media organisations in the world have clear editorial policies that promise high ethical standards. It’s also why these same media organisations would allow themselves to be held publicly accountable either through membership in a media council or through an ombuds office.
How would a government employ the same strategies in order to gain credibility? Well, for starters, state agencies like the police, the MACC and immigration department need to stop denying that there are problems of abuse of power and independence. Being defensive and opaque lends weight to the perception that the government has a wrongdoing to hide.
The state also needs to clearly oppose any kind of violence or threat of violence by ensuring adequate checks and balances. Hence, the need for the royal commission-recommended Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission.
And most definitely, BN parties need to devolve their hold over media companies and the government needs to amend or repeal media-restrictive laws.
But I’d be a fool, despite optimism over Umno’s ability to change, if I believed that the BN would actually act in the public’s interest by taking on these suggestions. Still, the BN’s inertia may just be what is needed for people to demand for change.
Jacqueline Ann Surin understood how much importance was placed on credibility by respected media organisations when she was introduced to the Washington Post’s ethical rules for journalists as an intern in the winter of 2001. Without credibility, a Washington Post editor told her, the paper was nothing. She wonders if that’s something politicians and governments could learn to understand.
Read previous Shape of a Pocket columns
The Nut Graph needs your support