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Utusan Malaysia and Teoh Beng Hock

HOW far can a newspaper go in presenting its version of the truth? Yes, it has become generally accepted in Malaysia and internationally that newspapers don’t necessarily print “The Truth” and have their biases. After all, a recent Merdeka Centre survey revealed that almost six out of 10 Malaysians don’t trust the traditional media.

But even so, how far can newspapers push their selective truth-telling? What happens when news reporting becomes truth distortion? And when newspapers start acting against the public interest?

Headlines on <em>Utusan Malaysia</em>

Utusan Malaysia's front-page headline (click for larger version)

These are questions that come to mind when perusing Utusan Malaysia‘s report on Thai forensic pathologist Dr Pornthip Rojanasunand’s evidence in the inquest into Teoh Beng Hock‘s death. Tiada bukti diseksa was Utusan Malaysia‘s front-page headline, highlighting the fact that Dr Pornthip had retracted her earlier evidence that Teoh’s death was 80% a homicide. It also reported Dr Pornthip’s conclusion that the anal tear and injury to Teoh’s buttocks were not caused by beating, as she previously thought, but due to the fall.

Troubling aspects

There are several troubling aspects about Utusan Malaysia‘s report on Dr Pornthip‘s evidence, some of which are listed below:

  • Crucial evidence: “No suicide”

The most significant point of Dr Pornthip’s evidence was surely her firm conclusion that Teoh did not commit suicide. This aspect of her evidence however was completely buried in Utusan‘s report. Dr Pornthip’s stunning conclusion was hidden away, obscured by a description of her “dyed hair” and “tight T-shirt”. This is just unacceptable.

Presenting the rest of the report about Dr Pornthip’s findings while obscuring that crucial piece of evidence completely distorts her evidence and takes it out of context. In fact, it is arguable that such selective reporting and distortion of facts renders reading such a news report almost meaningless.

  • Omission of context

Instead of reporting Dr Pornthip’s view that Teoh had not committed suicide, Utusan‘s report focused on how she had retracted her earlier estimate that Teoh’s death was 80% a homicide.

The report however failed to note that her new conclusion was based on her observation of the second autopsy on Teoh. It also omitted to mention that although Dr Pornthip declined to cite a percentage this time, she was still certain there was no suicide involved.

  • Gender insensitivity
Why discuss

Is Utusan really so concerned about different hair colours in court? (© Government of Thailand | Wiki Commons)

The reference to Dr Pornthip’s dyed hair and tight T-shirt was completely irrelevant to the evidence that she gave, yet it was mentioned in Utusan‘s report. The fact that this description was lumped together in the same sentence as Dr Pornthip’s conclusion that there was “no suicide” can only be interpreted as an attempt to undermine Dr Pornthip’s credibility when making that conclusion.

And for the record, there was no mention of what Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) prosecution head Datuk Abdul Razak Musa or anyone else was wearing that day.

So what?

Many Malaysians would say that this is only what is to be expected of Utusan Malaysia. After all, it is Umno-owned and strongly defensive of the ruling party and everything connected to it. But such misreporting should not be taken lightly. For here are some consequences of Utusan‘s irresponsible behaviour and unprofessional conduct.

  • Lack of accountability

Our government has vast powers over us. Institutions such as MACC and the police have wide powers of arrest and interrogation. Teoh himself was interrogated for at least nine hours, extending into the wee hours of the morning.

Attempts to stop round-the-clock interrogations proved fruitless when the Court of Appeal overturned a High Court ruling barring such practices. Teoh’s death is not the only death in custody which occurred under suspicious circumstances. It is possible that any one of us could end up like Teoh, brought in for questioning one afternoon, only to be found dead the next morning.

It is therefore in all our interests that everything is done to get to the bottom of Teoh’s mysterious death. And hiding crucial facts from readers just does not serve the public interest.

Throughout the demonstration, the crowd shouted, “Siasat!” and “Reformasi” and called the MACC a political tool of the Barisan Nasional.

Demonstration on 17 July 2009 demanding the truth about Teoh's mysterious death

The media plays an important role in keeping those in power accountable. It is still unclear what part MACC officers had to play in Teoh’s death. But any fact that suggests that they contributed in any way, whether directly or indirectly, must be made known to the public. For how else will our institutions of power change if they can act with impunity?

It is in this context that Utusan‘s skewered reporting does such a disservice to the public. Covering up or glossing over facts indicting those in power only ensures that any possible abuses will likely be repeated. This is no time to protect those in power, regardless of a newspaper’s politics. Not when matters of life and death, and public safety are at stake.

  • Polarisation

One-sided reporting also results in increasing polarisation of the Malaysian populace. Take the “Allah” incident for example. Some parts of Malaysia are aware of the use of “Allah” to refer to God throughout history, whether by Christians, Muslims or Sikhs. They know that “Allah” has been used by Christians in Malaysia since before independence. These groups of Malaysians are certain that the word “Allah” predates Islam and that no one can claim ownership over how someone intends to address their God.

(Pic by xymonau / sxc.hu)

Other Malaysians, however, are equally convinced and certain that Christians in Malaysia, especially in the peninsula, never used “Allah” to refer to their God until recently. They surmise that the Catholic church’s court challenge to lift the ban on the use of “Allah” in their publication, The Herald, is a deliberate attempt to challenge Islam and a cunning ploy to confuse Muslims.

Now how did such polarised views come about? Casual chatter over teh tarik and family dinner, perhaps? Or teachings from religious leaders? Underlying all these conversations and teachings would be the media’s influence in shaping opinions and people’s perception about what is “true”. And when the media distorts the truth and hides crucial facts, it can only result in an increasingly polarised Malaysia, where its citizens cannot agree with each other due to the half-truths they have been fed.

So the next time you perceive that a newspaper is distorting the news, don’t be so quick to accept it as a given in the Malaysian media scene. Hold these newspapers to account. If we don’t, it’s just possible that we would be allowing somebody in power to get away with murder.

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29 Responses to “Utusan Malaysia and Teoh Beng Hock”

  1. nik says:

    When you pick up your kids at school and even the pakciks (grandfathers picking up their grandchildren) standing there are discussing politics and expounding upon the most obvious conclusions (which greatly differs from what we are told to believe), then believe you me, the people at the grassroots are not fooled… I’ve overheard people talking at food stalls, in front of my kid’s school gate… everyone it seems now is more politically aware. If only the media would realise that cynicism is at an all time high and honesty and ‘cleanliness’ may be a better way to win momentum in the political battles…

  2. Andrew I says:

    Oooh, the last sentence was a bit naughty.

    What I’ve found is that the parts which some authors don’t agree with, or undermines their argument, usually comes in one quick breath … for the sake of that annoying thing called credibility.

    You just have to try your best to pass it off as part of the furniture.

  3. Bad Rabbit says:

    There’s an old Cold War story about Pravda.

    During a vodka-fuelled ambassadors’ reception in Paris, a very drunk British ambassador and a very drunk Russian ambassador start a discussion about their athletics prowess. Eventually a challenge is made and accepted, and the next day, the two ambassadors will compete with each other in the 100m race. The race happens and the British ambassador beats the Russian ambassador by over two seconds.

    A few weeks later a story appears in Pravda, the Russian newspaper, owned by the Communist Party. The article reports how the Russian ambassador had taken part in a race. He had come second, while the British ambassador was so bad that he had only managed to finish one from last. Glory to the communists, perdition to the capitalist running dogs!

    Neither Pravda nor Utusan were untruthful. They just warped the facts until they could tell the story the way they wanted to.

  4. truth says:

    I wonder if what TNG reported all this while can be considered the truth, since it is part of [the] Malaysian media the writer perceives as being distorted….. who to believe… I believe in myself.

  5. Ellese says:

    Again I find TNG highly biased. What about the one-sided reporting of Malaysian Insider, Malaysiakini etc? Don’t they misrepresent facts to the rakyat as well? The truth of the matter is that in TBH’s case there’s not enough evidence not only for suicide but murder as well. But you guys keep harping on murder. Similarly when our economy did an astounding 8.9%, these alternative media never recognised it, or spun it unflatteringly as “moderate growth”. And you complain only about Utusan. Be fair. Condemn all that are biased. Why be selective?

    • Koala says:

      So if it’s not murder or suicide, he just mysteriously fell to his death of natural causes?.

      Odds are, based on what has been uncovered and the “fishiness” of the whole evidence presented and use of personal attacks to taint a person’s credibility that indeed its gonna be far from suicide.

      Well, perhaps he was doing a rain dance and slipped and fell from all the excitement.

      • Kong Kek Kuat says:

        @ Koala

        Yes, you´ve got it.

        And you know why he was doing a rain-dance? Because he was so excited about a call from his then future wife telling him that she is pregnant.

        (Pardon me, Beng Hock. Just needed to get a point across. If you´re not able to rest in peace in the hereafter, may you go after the criminals who caused your death.)

  6. TC Ang says:

    Everyone is talking, nobody is fooled, but with a government that uses terrorism laws against peaceful means of protest, is there any point to protest? Why would you reason with the unreasonable? They are victims of their own paradigms; instead of getting frustrated at trying to make them understand, make allowances in your life for people like them.

    You got to hand it to them though, your freedoms are taken away, and they leave you with a small shred of happiness, small enough to make you notice something’s wrong, but big enough to make you think twice about trying to do anything about it. You could even argue that’s good management practice.

    In other words, none of you are unhappy enough yet.

  7. mnz says:

    Is there any such thing as a truly neutral, unbiased news reporting, especially in politically-oriented affairs? No, I have never seen one, not in Utusan Malaysia, not in The Star, not in Malaysiakini, not in Malaysian Insider, and not in this article. News writers will tend to focus on aspects or issues which are more in line with his/her own belief/stand or the newspaper’s funding source, and that’s pretty much universal.

    But anyway, somehow I think TNG has what it takes to be a truly independent, alternative media, and to make a difference in the media world.

    • Ding Jo-Ann says:

      It is not uncommon for newspapers to have political leanings and preferences. Neutrality is no longer the main guiding principle for journalists. But whatever a newspaper’s political leanings, and no matter who owns it, whatever a journalist’s own beliefs, such matters cannot trump public interest. Not if the newspaper wants to maintain credibility. In reporting on Teoh’s inquest, it is in the public interest for the media to ferret out any possibilities that a public authority could have directly or indirectly led to a citizen’s death. A cover-up of any such fact will beg the question, “Whose interests then is the newspaper serving?”

      • mnz says:

        Ding Jo-Ann,

        You know there’s something that I learnt in the A-level General Paper, many many years ago. A credible essay presents both sides of a particular view – one can’t get top marks unless one has considered and discussed thoroughly both alternating views and sets of evidence, before coming to or implying a conclusion. I’m not sure what you journalists have learnt in school, but your report is bent on challenging one side of a view (he jumped or he did not), and that side only. There are factors that lean towards Pornthip’s argument, and there are factors that are against. Did you highlight both?

        I may sound simplistic, but really, the way you put it (and the way many articles in the alternative media are written), you sound just like the other side whose media practice you are criticizing.

        • Ding Jo-Ann says:

          mnz,

          Thank you for your comments. I’m afraid I have to point out there’s a difference between writing a news commentary and an A-Levels General Paper. News commentaries, as the name suggests, is a commentary about the news. It represents a particular viewpoint or analysis about a topic in the news. Journalistic ethics dictate that such pieces be clearly demarcated and distinguished from news. This is so readers understand that this is the writer’s opinion about a particular subject.

          My article was commenting on Utusan Malaysia’s news reporting of Dr Pornthip’s evidence. It was not a news report on the evidence itself. It was focusing specifically on why the news report buried crucial facts that was important for the public to know.

          The commentary was not on whether Dr Pornthip’s evidence was credible, true or weak. If I had written a feature on it, which is another news category, I would have then had to interview people with differing views so that all sides were represented. But in my commentary, I was focusing on why Utusan chose to report Dr Pornthip’s evidence in the manner that they did. I hope that clarifies matters.

          • Kong Kek Kuat says:

            @ mnz

            In any case, I think TNG is not in the habit of practising trial by mass media — even though this is not a trial per se.

            That´s the difference between moral prostitutes like Utusan Melayu and ethically professional journalists like TNG.

            ;-J

  8. Jamal says:

    I agree, no press is truly neutral. I agree, the press is still a business entity. But the degree of bias-ness for Utusan is way out of range.

    When a mass media is owned by a political party, they are ‘controlled’ for a political agenda, issues published would be very selective, points of argument are skewed, facts were warped, sometimes even lies, this would eventually mould the perception and thought process of society. One could gauge Umno’s confidence level by reading Utusan, when that political party is in desperate, the press churns out very ugly articles, warped facts and sometime lies. There goes the saying ‘your body is what you eat, your mind is what you read, you are what you preach’. If that is political press, don’t called it mass media, label it as Umno’s press, it is fine, political press is bias and skewed with their political agendas.

    If not because of the internet, we could be well locked within the fantasy of realities and lies. The reality is the era of ‘you control the media you control the masses’ is over. Keeping this pipe dream will backfire in the urbanized areas, where alternative media are sources to counter Utusan’s effect. The last target for Utusan are the rural areas, where information is not readily available and where the media can be abused to deprive people their right to information. The good news is, it is the last piece!.

    • mnz says:

      I have no objection to your criticism of Utusan. I’m all for a strong opposition, but its just that at times, the opposition needs to self-examine itself.

      Does Harakah, Rocket or Keadilan not warp and sensationalize half-facts, choose news and facts that suit their political agenda, etc.? And if I got it correctly, what you are trying to say: “Yes, we lie, but the other side lies even more, and in a bigger way”. Am I right?

      And now with regard to press freedom, a point you are trying to imply in your last paragraph, lets imagine the following scenario:
      1. PAS comes into power, and has things its way. Liberal Muslims decide to come together and produce their own newspaper, a newspaper that challenges the Islamic authority. Will PAS allow this?
      2. DAP comes into power, and runs things its way. Nationalist Malays decide to produce their own newspaper, trying to trump up nationalist sentiment. Will DAP allow this, in the name of press freedom? The PAP didn’t give a chance..

      I am not siding with anyone here. What I am trying to say (or ask) is: are you sure the opposition won’t be as bad as the one currently in power?

      • MTPocket says:

        You will never know until u try an alternative view. At one time, humans believe the sun, stars, and all other heavenly bodies revolve around the Earth as its centre and this was how reality or truth was defined then until someone is willing to try an alternative view.

        • mnz says:

          Scientific revolution doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years and years of work and collection of evidence and emprical data before a particular view is accepted by the mainstream.
          I’m trying an alternative view (by reading so-called alternative media), but I am still looking for evidence that the opp will be better in matters pertaining to media.

  9. TooMuch says:

    Utusan and all the controlled media will continue to be lopsided, extremist, biased, shallow and empty-up-there reporting. We expect these hollow nutshells to report balance and logical views? Not before the next election. They think that the citizens of this country are complete idiots like them interested in gossips, distortion and sensationalised news. Absurd commentary about Dr Pornthip’s hair colour and tight shirt instead of TBH’s death clearly not being the result of suicide.

  10. Z says:

    We are living in a world where we are bombarded by information on a daily basis. Newspapers used to be the only source of information at one time in the past, but no longer today. We get our news from various other sources, such as online, TV, etc. And not to mention, we can get it almost instantaneously.

    With all this information, how can we know for sure of its authenticity? News is basically someone telling you something that they heard from someone else. So it is up to us, the readers, to read, understand, and evaluate for ourselves its authenticity. Double check, triple check and cross check other media for its validity. Utusan is undoubtedly the Malay loudspeaker of the government, as is Harakah for PAS, The Rocket for DAP, The Star for MCA, or to bring it to an international level, FOX News for the Republicans etc (similar to what mnz wrote).

    We should not blindly believe everything that we read. One interesting case was that of the “Nose4News” satire website. In it, the author wrote a fictional satire article about “TNB Suing WWF for Earth Hour” in which TNB suffered losses when WWF encourages people to switch of thier lights. I could not stop laughing. But my laughter soon turned to tears when I read on Facebook that people were getting angry at TNB, and some were calling the boycott of TNB and calling TNB names I can’t say here. The “news” was forwarded and appeared on many anti-establishment blog sites. It got so out of hand that TNB finally had to make a report, and the author had to remove the post. Note that on the site, the author had explicitly mentioned that nothing on the site is real, it’s all fake and that it is meant for laughs. But no one read it.

    Thus, we, the readers, should be aware and scrutinise everything we read. Whatever babble Utusan comes out with, we should not take it to be the truth – even though I like to think the majority of us Malaysians do.

  11. PH Chin says:

    Hahaha…. another “masterpiece” from Utusan.

    Apparently Utusan thinks it reported the truth. Little does it knows that only a minority of its readers believe in its reports.

    ” The thing is this. They are not even good at doing it!! To lie and misrepresent an event is something. But to do it in a really stupid way is another thing altogether. Do Utusan Malaysia think that all of us, Malaysians, are as stupid as themselves?” …Art Harun

  12. Cadraver says:

    As Jamal said earlier, all media outlets will have their own sense of bias. But what sets one newspaper or alternative media apart from the rest would be their respective reporting of a given event.

    Which is where fairness and the inclusion of certain necessary facts comes into play. Of course, it will be left to the reader to make their own decisions based on what he or she reads, though most readers probably aren’t going to pick up various papers, or read all the alternatives available.

    It’s kind of sad to see where Utusan has gone, considering that it was actually a very readable paper in its founding days.

  13. Ling says:

    Wow, I am amazed by the number of people who maintain the “tidak apa” attitude today. I cannot really say that this “tidak apa” attitude stems from naivete or through being uneducated- as many are aware of the issues and could even write and argue very well in any language they are fluent in.

    I really believe there is really something fundamentally wrong with the upbringing or culture of some Malaysians. The selfish attitude and short term vision taken (where they care only for their own interests) is really beyond belief. Many Malaysians seem willing to turn their blind eye as to what is wrong with the country, even if the issue has been slapping them in the face multiple times- for these people, it seems like everything is “all right” as long as they are not affected.

    It is this kind of attitude that allows murder, robbery, environmental destruction and the rape of humanity to fester. We should really all be looking at the values we are living by and projecting to our future generations. It is only natural that your children will follow in your foot steps someday. If everyone takes this “tidak apa” attitude, what happens if your wife is murdered and no one cares? What if you get into an accident and no one cares? Worst of all, what if you get old, and your children stop caring about you because you are useless and do not add value or present positive value to their life. This is going to be the imminent effect of the selfish attitude.

    Don’t be an idiot. Stand up for yourself and your family. Many people like to escape their responsibility by turning a blind eye (thus running away). For men out there, stop being a scary puss. Own up to your responsibility as a citizen and be a man! For women out there, do you think this world will be a safer place for you to life in if this negative value fester. Use your brain.

  14. Eleen says:

    Hi, anyone know where this Musa guy graduated from? I want to make sure my children don’t go to the same school. Seriously, what kind of education did he receive?

    • Kong Kek Kuat says:

      Haha… ini bukan pasal education. Ini pasal adat — lupa adat. Inilah akhibatnya bila terlalu lama di bawah kepimpinan Umno.

      But on the other hand, I think he was merely doing his job lah — albeit quite like a novice, because that´s no way to cross a person.

  15. Prakash says:

    So, how do we stop this? How about sabotage the [traditional] media. People, stop buying the [traditional] newspapers, stop supporting them, let papers be rejected and returned to their own factory. The only reason they won’t be threatened by our dissatisfaction and protest (such as this article), is because, still we entertain them. If we stop supporting the media, how would they ever survive? The advertisers will cancel their contract and they will go bankrupt. The only way to show that we, the public has the power is by showing that they must give us what we want, the TRUTH alone. If you still need news, go online perhaps, since there are a lot of secondary media mass on net that are more honest and politics-free.

    We don’t need the [traditional] media, they need us!


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