IT’S commonly accepted that the media play a role in shaping public perception. But how exactly does that happen? Here’s an analysis of Utusan Malaysia‘s coverage on two issues: the controversy over Interlok, and the request for the dawn azan’s volume to be lowered at a Kampung Kerinchi mosque.
Let’s first look at the press coverage on Interlok. The book’s introduction into the Form Five literature syllabus at the end of 2010 was criticised because it referred to an Indian immigrant from the “pariah” caste. The word “pariah” has a derogatory connotation, and some groups, including Barisan Nasional component party MIC, said its usage in a textbook was offensive to Indian Malaysians. Others demanded the book’s removal, saying it wrongly depicted the Malaysian Indian community.
Here’s how Utusan Malaysia tackled the issue. The newspaper interviewed Interlok‘s author, Datuk Abdullah Hussain, for his side of the story. The interview, entitled Air mata sasterawan, was published on the front page with a photograph of the 91-year-old national laureate in tears. The interview asked Abdullah to clarify Interlok’s “true meaning”, and for his response to ethnic Indians who had rejected it. Abdullah explained the context for his use of the offending word – that it was in reference to the caste system practised in India at the time, and that he had no intention whatsoever of offending Indian Malaysians.
In response to a protest where copies of the novel and the author’s picture were burnt, a 12 Jan 2011 Utusan Malaysia editorial urged protesters not to go overboard and to be rational. It accused protesters of not appreciating Interlok’s contents, and of not reading the book. The editorial also quoted associate professor Sivamurugan Pandian from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). “As an Indian Malaysian, Sivamurugan is very rational,” the editorial said. “He said the term pariah in Interlok was seen as relevant at that time and that needs to be appreciated by Indian [Malaysians] today.”
Another 12 Jan 2011 editorial titled Elok fahami Interlok, bukannya bakar also criticised the book burning. It said the protests against Abdullah demonstrated the attitude of “uncivilised people motivated only by emotions”.
A news report quoted different non-governmental organisations also condemning the protest. Protesters actions were labelled “childish”, “immature”, and insulting the Yang diPertuan Agong, who had bestowed Abdullah with the national laureate title.
On 17 Jan 2011, Utusan Malaysia published a news report quoting Professor Dr Ambigapathy Pandian, dean of USM’‘s School of Languages, Literacy and Translation. The report quoted Ambigapathy as saying the issue had been manipulated and that Interlok was well written and didn’t pose any problems.
Let’s now examine Utusan‘s coverage of the azan issue. The azan issue began when a lawyer residing at Pantai Hill Park, Kuala Lumpur, wrote to the Prime Minister’s Department requesting for the dawn azan’s volume at a nearby mosque to be lowered. He also reportedly suggested that guidelines be issued on azan volumes nationwide. Mahadi Abdullah, the mosque’s head imam, told reporters that Federal Territories Islamic Department (Jawi) officials instructed him to lower the volume following the complaint.
A reportedly raucous protest was held in front of the mosque, Masjid Al-Ikhlasiah, on 14 Jan, with about 100 people present. Protesters chanted Allahuakhbar and carried banners displaying the complainant’s name, address and phone number. They also burnt an effigy of the complainant.
Here’s how Utusan Malaysia chose to report on the protest. “About 100 people gathered around Masjid Al-Ikhlasiah … They carried banners saying ‘Azan is sacred’, ‘Don’t play with fire’ and ‘Islam is our religion’.”
“The gathering ended at about 2:30pm when some parties burnt three replicas of a corpse outside the mosque, but police successfully managed to stop them.
“Having said that, no undesirable incidents occurred at the assembly,” Utusan reported. No mention was made of the protesters being “childish” or “immature”.
On 18 Jan 2011, Utusan‘s front page proclaimed Isu azan selesai, saying the lawyer had apologised for his memorandum. The report carried a photograph of the complainant and the mosque chairperson shaking hands. Federal Territories and Urban Well-being Minister Datuk Raja Nong Chik Raja Zainal Abidin was pictured with them, all standing in front of an Umno flag. An editorial said the apology should soothe Muslims who had been hurt by the incident and should be a lesson to all not to play with religious issues. It also encouraged non-Muslims to be more aware of important Islamic practices such as prayers and festivals.
Interlok vs azan
Here’s a summarised comparison of Utusan‘s reporting on both issues.
|Interlok issue||Azan issue
|The person being accused of “racism”, i.e. the author of the book, was given ample opportunity to explain his side of the story.||The person accused of “playing with religious issues” was quoted only to demonstrate that he had apologised and was “sorry” for his actions.|
|The context of the offending word was explained not just by the author but also other knowledgeable parties.||The context of the lawyer’s complaint or why it arose after he had lived in the area for several years was never discussed.|
|Views in support of the author, by members of the ethnic community reportedly offended, were obtained.||No opinions that could possibly justify the complainant’s viewpoint, such as this New Straits Times article on guidelines on the azan, were published by Utusan.|
|Editorials were published advising rationality, calm, and discussion in response to the angry burning of items in protest of the issue.||No editorials were published condemning the angry effigy burning outside the mosque. Instead a news report said that “no undesirable incidents” had occurred at the protest.|
Issues are seldom straightforward, especially those involving race and religion. Utusan‘s coverage on Interlok helped to explain that the issue was not about a Malay Malaysian author deliberately setting out to disparage the Indian Malaysian community. The reports and editorials provided context, perspective, history and sound advice to be rational and calm in discussing the issue. It provided a platform for dialogue and discussion, and for a sound decision to be made on whether or not the book should be removed from the school syllabus.
Which of course begs the question: Where was this rationality and ability to ask good questions when it came to reporting on the azan issue? What criteria is used to determine which stories are given such comprehensive coverage, and which ones are reported from a one-dimensional perspective? Was the fact that one issue involved a government decision, which the paper felt compelled to defend, part of the equation? Or were there other more insidious considerations?
Whatever the reasons, these two examples demonstrate that objectivity in news reporting is a myth. What is more crucial is whether an issue is reported fairly, accurately and responsibly.
Hence, it is important for Malaysians to be critical when reading the news. Journalists and editors construct reality in the way that they treat an issue. If news consumers were not critical, they would only subscribe to the reality that the media constructs for them. And that, as the two examples above demonstrate, may be an ill-informed and lopsided reality.