Joshua Wong holding up promotional material from his No political interference! campaign
NEWS savvy Malaysians now probably know Joshua Wong Ngee Choong, 42, as the ntv7 producer who quit the network on 20 April 2010. The headlines, however, focused on the alleged political interference by the Prime Minister’s Office and the prime minister’s wife, Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor. In this 17 May exclusive interview in Kuala Lumpur, Wong explains to The Nut Graph that the trigger for his resignation was actually self-censorship within the network.
In this first of a two-part interview, Wong details the progression of his career in journalism, and offers us insights into how he tried — with varying degrees of success — to practise ethical journalism within a traditional and controlled media outlet.
TNG: Tell us a little bit about yourself. When did you begin your career in journalism? Did you always want to be a journalist?
Joshua Wong Ngee Choong: I studied in the accounting stream at Chung Hwa Independent High School. After graduating, I thought I automatically needed to study accounting. So I took my London Chamber of Commerce and Industry diploma, and then worked as an accounts clerk at a travel firm. But I had no interest in my job.
At the same time, I worked as a volunteer editor for a Chinese-language Christian publication. Later on, a friend asked me if I wanted to study journalism instead. That’s when I quit my job as an accounts clerk and studied for my diploma in journalism at the Hanxing Academy of Journalism and Communication, Cheras.
After graduating, I worked at China Press as a crime reporter for two years. Then I went to Sin Chew Jit Poh and worked at their weekly youth magazine. After about a year there, I decided to pursue journalism further and did my journalism degree at the Hong Kong Baptist University. This is where I became educated about subjects such as journalistic ethics and investigative journalism.
While in Hong Kong, I also did a part-time internship at Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK). After graduating, I worked full-time as an assistant producer for a Mandarin-language station of RTHK. I liked some of the documentary programmes on RTHK and watched them every week. Soon, I believed that I could be that kind of journalist, too.
So when I came back to Malaysia, I jointed RTM for one-and-a-half years. Then I got an offer from ntv7 to produce a show called Finding Angels. I joined ntv7, but soon discovered that my interest wasn’t really in the programme. I was more interested in (the Chinese version of) Edisi Siasat.
Interviewing the Orang Asli for Siasat Mandarin (pic courtesy of Wong)
At that time, Siasat Mandarin was very sensationalist on certain issues. They’d do reports on ghosts and things that were of no public interest. So I tried to redirect Siasat Mandarin, by reporting and featuring marginalised groups and social issues, for example transsexuals, Orang Asli, homosexuals and so on.
Wasn’t the Malay version of Edisi Siasat also accused of being sensationalist?
Yes, they would also do shows on similar issues, but sometimes they’d be judgmental and sensationalist, for example on homosexuality and sex workers.
Actually, two or three years ago, ntv7 discontinued Siasat Malay because of a lack of human resources. There were also just too many complaints from the public about the show’s sensationalism, bias, and its use of religion to make moral judgments on different groups. Even the network’s top management didn’t like the Siasat Malay style of reporting.
Actually, Siasat Malay was an excellent platform to explore public interest issues. A different producer might have been able to redirect the show that way.
So for the past seven years at ntv7, did you feel that you managed to do the kind of journalism you wanted to do?
Yes, I was happy at ntv7, especially at the beginning. The top management seldom asked us what topics we wanted to explore.
For example, in the 2008 protest against the Bar Council forum on conversions, we tried to convince our superiors that we would shoot a fair episode. We told them we’d speak to both syariah and civil lawyers to get different points of view. Our executive producer said okay, but the Film Censorship Board wouldn’t approve the episode.
But you see, my superiors started trusting me and my team because we consistently did a good job with the show over the years.
In 2008, you produced a Siasat Mandarin episode, The Power of Civil Society, which was banned by the authorities. Why did you not resign then? What’s the difference between the censorship in 2008 and in 2010?
At that time, at least we knew the rules of the game. If we did a show on the impact of religion on politics and society, we knew there might be a chance the authorities would censor us. The important thing is that we didn’t self-censor, and we always tried to make our reporting fair.
And in working like this, we actually managed to get some things through that we didn’t expect to. For example, on our show on transsexuals, we interviewed academic Prof Dr Teh Yik Koon, who told us that sex reassignment surgery is actually allowed in Iran, which is also a Muslim country. The Censorship Board actually approved this content!
[As] a television journalist, I have to submit my work to the Censorship Board and that’s part of the system. The thing is, my own superiors should not also practise self-censorship.
You see, now it would be difficult for me even if I had chosen to stay on as producer of Editor’s Time. The network’s bosses said we had to follow the three restrictions: no political issues, no opposition politicians on the programme, and no Hulu Selangor by-election coverage temporarily. But the show itself is supposed to run for 13 episodes. How would I know when the restrictions would get lifted?
Some of my colleagues said, “Why not just close one eye now and wait until Siasat comes back [later in the year]? After all, that’s the show you really care for.”
But I felt that what the network did to my programme and my team was not fair. Those allegations that were made against my show, top management did not even conduct any investigations before they imposed this self-censorship. In fact, I think they were not only punishing my programme, they were also punishing the audience.
But surely in your seven years at ntv7 there must have been instances before this when there was censorship or interference. How did you manage to work in such an environment for so long?
I have a recipe. (Laughs) I emphasise the process of fighting for what is right. For example, there was a shampoo company that gave the network a big amount of money for product placement on Siasat Mandarin. So we had to do an episode on hair loss, on why the shampoo could be good for this problem and so on. The company even sponsored a trip to their Japan factory. Management also promised the company that we’d interview one of their celebrity product endorsers.
But in a subsequent meeting with the shampoo company, I argued that this would be a lose-lose situation for both them and our network. I told them audiences now are clever. They’d watch the Siasat episode, see the blitz on the shampoo brand, the commercials and the celebrity endorsement and would think badly of the brand. Also this would destroy ntv7′s credibility. The shampoo company said, “But your bosses have already agreed to this.”
But I kept on pursuing this line of reasoning, and in the end the shampoo company agreed that we didn’t need to interview their celebrity endorser.
You see, interference can come in this way, too, when an external party dictates whom we can interview as journalists. So in this case, we decided to compromise and still do the show on hair loss, but we decided on the experts we would interview. We also changed the angle of the show. Instead of it becoming an issue on women’s hair loss only, we decided to cover hair loss issues for both men and women. We made it a general, public interest issue. In this sense, we tried to minimise harm.
But in such cases of interference, a journalist has two options — either quit or compromise. So it’s an ongoing process, minimising harm and protecting editorial independence. But sometimes I failed also lah. (Laughs)
Wong during graduation day at Ateneo
(pic courtesy of Wong)Did you think of quitting before this?
Many times! (Laughs) It was always a struggle. I’d SMS my media ethics lecturer at Ateneo de Manila University [where I did my Masters in journalism], and consult her opinion. She’d then ask me a series of questions, such as, “Have you trained a successor at the network if you were to leave?” If the answer was no, then she’d tell me that leaving would not be a wise decision. It’s important for journalists to build a layer of credible successors to ensure that the process of responsible journalism is not interrupted.
So do you have a successor now?
(Laughs) I don’t know. There are other questions to consider also, for example, “If you give up on this platform as a journalist, will you be doing a disservice to the audience?” Or, “Is this only a temporary setback?”
Did any of these questions involve a question of income or your rice bowl?
No. I never stayed at any organisation because of rice bowl issues. I stayed at ntv7 because of Edisi Siasat and the platform it offered, and because of the network’s overall support.
What was different this time round that you decided you needed to quit? What was the thing that made you decide, “This is it.”?
It really was self-censorship, and also the external interference this time was just too obvious.
I have to be fair to the external actors, though. I really do not know if the Prime Minister’s Office merely forwarded third party concerns to us, or if they were actually instructing us. There’s a gap here that I cannot explain and I have no evidence to point either way.
But top management should have conducted a thorough investigation of these matters before jumping into self-censorship. You see, this level of interference had never happened in the seven years I was at the network. If the top management had just bothered to find out the facts and defended me, I don’t think I would have resigned.
Have you been receiving many messages of support for your decision to quit ntv7? Who have they been from? What have they been telling you?
Yes, mostly from old friends and my church members. Mostly the messages are, “You’re very brave.” Or, “You must be very careful, because the people you have taken to task are quite high-level.” But I had to take this risk, especially when I called the press conference to expose these things. I don’t think of it as brave — I think these are principles every journalist should hold.
You see, if we were to talk about political directives and so on, two Chinese dailies — Sin Chew and China Press — did not report on my resignation on the day it happened. They only published follow-up responses from different leaders later, even then with little prominence. But Nyanyang Siang Pau and Oriental Daily reported on my resignation. How come these two papers could do it? Was there a possibility of self-censorship in the other papers?
Have you been receiving criticisms, including from fellow journalists? What’s their point of view?
Yes, they say since I held such a high-profile press conference, I would be affecting the show Editor’s Time and so on. But I wasn’t condemning my team members or the show per se. I was just saying, stop political interference and self-censorship.
Some of them also consider what I did as individual heroism, or showing off. It’s up to them to judge me. To me, time will be the best judge of my actions. If I had continued to work within the system, it would actually be easier for me, and I could try to be a “hero” even in that way.
More importantly, if we care about good journalism, I would rather we gather more journalists to fight for press freedom and against political interference, instead of dismissing individuals.
What will you do now? Will you continue to pursue journalism? If yes, why, and if no, why not?
(Laughs) I’m still looking for a job. I will focus on the No political interference! campaign to educate the public on the state of journalism and also to equip fellow journalists with information.
I will go back to journalism eventually, because I think this is my lifelong calling. Even if I were to become a lecturer in journalism, I’d want to continue making documentaries because it’s important to keep giving voice to the voiceless. It is my mission to do this, to tell stories about marginalised groups, environmental issues and so on.
See part II of the exclusive interview: Ethical journalism within Malaysia
For related stories, see In the spotlight: Freedom of Expression
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