PETALING JAYA, 22 Dec 2009: Former theSun associate editor Ng Kee Seng is demanding RM3 million, an apology and a retraction from The Malaysian Insider consultant editor Leslie Lau over an allegedly libellous article.
Ng has threatened to sue Lau, who wrote the article Back to the wall, Tee Keat resorts to bizarre moves, unless he responds within seven days of receiving the letter.
Lau said in a phone interview he would not comment as he had not yet received the letter. The letter, dated 16 Dec 2009, was made available to The Nut Graph.
In the article, Lau wrote that Ng would take up the post of executive editor at The Star on 1 Jan 2010. Ng’s appointment was purportedly by MCA president Ong Tee Keat to ensure the paper supported him. The Star‘s majority shareholder is MCA’s investment arm Huaren Holdings Sdn Bhd.
Screenshot of the article (Source: The Malaysian Insider)
Ng did not take up the post. He said nobody from The Malaysian Insider contacted him to verify if the speculation was true. Lau’s story does not name any sources; nor does he explain why his sources cannot be revealed for purposes of accountability.
Ng’s letter of demand said Lau’s article implied that he was a “person of low moral character and who is willing to be a tool of politicians.”
Ng confirmed he was offered the post, but only verbally. He said he declined as he already had his work permit and visa for an editor’s job at a newspaper in Papua New Guinea, which he would be leaving for at the end of December.
The Malaysian Insider has not corrected its story despite its factual inaccuracy.
Ng also took issue with Lau’s description of him as an “undistinguished veteran journalist” when he had been a journalist for 30 years at The Star, theSun, and The Edge. Lau also described Ng as someone whom The Star editors had “little respect for”, although his report did not justify how he reached that conclusion.
Ng said he would donate money from the damages, if he won the suit, to the National Union of Journalists and the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ).
A balancing problem
It’s not often that one journalist sues another for defamation. The closest case in Malaysia was when the New Straits Times sued blogger-journalist Ahiruddin Atan and blogger Jeff Ooi, now a DAP parliamentarian.
Recent defamations suits against the media have mostly been initiated by politicians. Such action has been condemned as an attack on media freedom, especially when initiated by Pakatan Rakyat (PR) politicians who say they want and will support a free press.
CIJ executive director Gayathry Venkiteswaran acknowledged that civil defamation action was one recourse for aggrieved parties, but that such actions also curbed freedom of expression.
“It will always be a balancing game between one’s right to defend one’s reputation and the freedom of the media to publish views and opinions,” she told The Nut Graph.
It may be the court’s awarding of huge damages in the millions in certain defamation cases that encourages suits against the media. But recent judgements have awarded reasonable amounts of compensation to recognise an individual’s rights, while sending a strong message about journalistic professionalism, Gayathry added. She cited Irene Fernandez vs Utusan Malaysia and Anwar Ibrahim vs NSTP.
When press = propaganda
Gayathry noted the tendency and danger of journalists to compromise on standards when relying on stories from sources.
“It boils down to whether media professionals are compromising on their standards in the interest of getting their stories out. Of course it’s an ‘insider’ story, but why not get it from the horse’s mouth itself? Giving the person the opportunity to comment is a basic [journalistic] value,” she said.
On this principle, many other stories have failed basic journalistic ethics, she added.
It was on that basis that an Utusan reporter was barred from a press conference in late November by the Selangor Pakatan Rakyat Elected Representatives Officers Association (Selproa), claimed Selproa secretary Ng Yap Hwa.
The NUJ condemned Selproa’s move as unprofessional and against the public’s right to know. Indeed, it makes PR politicians, including in Penang, appear hypocritical when they prevent journalists from certain media from covering their events.
However, in a letter to the editor that few media organisations carried, Selproa’s Ng argued that Utusan has regularly flouted the NUJ’s own code of ethics. He cited the principle of responsible journalism, which he said Utusan breaks with its false reporting against the opposition and with some of its racist and inflammatory articles.
He also criticised the NUJ for not censuring Utusan for failing to meet journalistic standards.
The real problem
Gayathry notes that in all these cases, with The Malaysian Insider story being the latest, a key issue is the question of media ownership.
“What is the news value of the Insider story? Was it Ng Kee Seng, or the fact that politicians in the ruling government party who own the mainstream media have full liberty in deciding the media’s leadership?
“This is a problem not just for the MCA, but for all Barisan Nasional parties that directly or indirectly own the mainstream media,” she said.
The Nut Graph needs your support