WHY is the Home Ministry chiding journalists for not getting the government’s view when it is the government that frequently gives journalists the run-around or prevents journalists from writing the truth?
Ministry secretary-general Datuk Seri Mahmood Adam Mahmood reportedly advised the print media to let government agencies tell their side of the story when these agencies were being portrayed negatively. He said this during a special discussion in early November with representatives from various print media organisations.
Mahmood must be unaware that government guidelines and policies restrict civil servants’ contact with the media. And from experience, government agencies make for extremely poor sources of the news especially when the media is trying to hold government accountable.
Gayathry VenkiteswaranCentre for Independent Journalism executive director Gayathry Venkiteswaran highlights to The Nut Graph that civil servants are barred from speaking to the media on policies without a superior’s written approval. This is provided in Clause 17(1) of the General Orders and Administrative Guidelines which applies to all civil servants.
“Journalists frequently face a problem because of these guidelines,” says Gayathry. “If you call, then they’ll say, ‘You have to speak to the DG (director-general).’ If you speak to the DG, they might say, ‘Please speak to the secretary-general.’ If you speak to the secretary-general, he or she might say, ‘Oh, for this, you better speak to the minister.'”
It seems paradoxical for the government to urge the media to get government responses on one hand but on the other, restrict government officials from speaking about their policies and programmes to the press.
The Home Ministry also seems unaware of the many obstacles journalists face when contacting the government for information. Journalists at times have to make multiple phone calls and visits to ministries to obtain information that should be readily available to the public. And at times, even when the relevant official finally responds, the officer then refuses to be quoted.
Stressful phone calls are part and parcel of contacting
government officials (© Joe Zlomek / sxc.hu)Locating the relevant official can also be an exercise in stamina and perseverance. Journalists are often subjected to many unanswered calls and being passed from one official to another.
When attempting to obtain information recently from the Finance Ministry on gender-sensitive budgeting, The Nut Graph had to call eight different officials to merely identify the correct person to speak to.
Whether it is due to fear of releasing information to the public or suspicion of the media, it is also difficult at times to obtain information on simple and straightforward matters, especially since Malaysia has the Official Secrets Act.
For example, The Nut Graph encountered difficulties in simply trying to confirm the exact number of police reports recently filed against Sisters in Islam (SIS). This was despite contacting the Legal Prosecution Unit at Bukit Aman who interviewed SIS members and the Kuantan police, where an initial police report was filed.
Instead of advising the media to contact government agencies, the Home Ministry should perhaps review the guidelines hindering government officials from speaking to the press.
No instructions, please
Indeed, if the Home Ministry is really committed to letting all sides of the story be told, it should instead refrain from trying to influence the reporting of news stories in the traditional media.
This would perhaps prevent such disparate reporting as that following the November 2007 Bersih rally for fair elections. Indeed, the traditional media were instructed that they could not report anything about the Bersih rally before, during or after the event unless it quoted government or police sources.
As a result, while the local traditional media quoted Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Musa Hassan as saying that only 4,000 attended the rally, CNN, Al-Jazeera and Malaysiakini reported a far more accurate figure of between 30,000 and 40,000. In that instance, it wasn’t just government credibility that nosedived, local media credibility also took a beating. But can we blame the local media since the government, under existing laws, has absolute power to shut down a traditional media outfit?
For certain, as far as possible, genuine attempts should be made by any journalist worth his or her salt to get all sides of a story before writing a news report. That’s just Journalism 101.
It’s Journalism 101 that legitimate stakeholders are given a fair chance to comment on a news story
The Nut Graph’s editorial policy states that legitimate stakeholders must be given a fair chance to comment on a news story. A similar provision would certainly be found in the editorial policy of any respectable news agency, regardless of any government advice such as Mahmood’s. Although the Home Ministry may have good intentions, the media should not have to be advised on such basic journalistic principles. Indeed, it is in the interest of the media to be fair and to do its utmost to be fair with or without government prodding.
It is when journalists or their editors don’t uphold this basic principle of fairness, that their credibility, impartiality and independence can easily be called into question.
Azmin AliFor example, on 19 and 20 Oct 2009, The Star published two news reports regarding Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. In the reports, former Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) member Datuk KS Nallakaruppan and Anwar’s former private secretary Anuar Shaari insinuated that Anwar shared a “secret” with PKR vice-president Azmin Ali. A follow-up report on 3 Nov cited Nallakaruppan calling for Anwar to be sacked by PKR president Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail on moral grounds.
No references could be found in any of the above articles of any attempts at contacting Anwar, Azizah, Azmin or PKR for their comments about an issue that cast them in a bad light. Even if the insinuations against Anwar are proven true later, the fact is that by not getting the other sides of the story, The Star is opening itself up to being regarded as a paper that is neither fair nor responsible.
They say that credibility is a media’s most important currency. Without credibility, no media would be able to garner an audience and hence, revenue from that audience to be sustainable. One way to remain credible is to always endeavour to be fair.
Any serious media owner or practitioner knows this. We don’t need the government to remind us to be fair. And we definitely don’t need a government which prevents the traditional media from being fair, telling us that we need to be fair to government agencies.
If the Home Ministry really finds it necessary to issue such reminders to the media, it should perhaps emphasise the universal applicability of such standards instead of issuing instructions that ring hollow.
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