HOW is our media measuring up to its role? If some newspapers’ treatment of what constitutes news is anything to go by, it is clear that some among the Malaysian media are not only unprofessional. They are also causing harm to vulnerable groups.
Without a doubt, there is evidence that some media are targeting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Malaysia. A recent memorandum sent by concerned individuals to the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) highlighted how newspaper reports frequently demonise the community as “deviant”, “lewd” and “disgusting”.
Regardless of one’s personal views about sexuality, the question is how does such reporting measure up against journalistic ethics, uphold public interest, and respect a person’s dignity? One way to answer that question would be to compare recent Malaysian reports on the LGBT community against well-known journalistic codes of ethics.
The limitation of harm is one of the foremost principles in ethical journalism. It is for that reason that minors’ names, sex crime survivors’ identities and grieving families, for example, should be treated sensitively in news reports. The underlying rationale is that however hot a story, all sources and subjects are human beings and deserve respect.
It is questionable however, whether the following Malaysian news reports do enough to minimise harm and accord the individuals being targeted with respect for their rights and dignity.
“Dancing while licking their respective partners!” a Kosmo report entitled Parti lesbian berleluasa began. The report also recounted how most of the 100 people at the “wild party” were deviant or from golongan songsang.
Or consider this headline: Pesta khatan berkepit pondan in Harian Metro on the presence of transgenders dancing the joget with locals at a village circumcision festival.
And how about this title: Aksi panas pengkid, lesbian, which contained a report on a private party for lesbians, which was infiltrated by undercover journalists.
Many of the reports focused on titillating details such as lesbian couples “making out lustily on beds while the music played” or “disgusting and frightening incidents of local gay teenagers who advertise themselves on social networking sites to obtain wild sex.”
Rather than aiming to minimise harm, these reports in fact set up LGBTs as target practice for the morally superior.
Journalistic principles also call for good taste in reporting and to “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity”.
Harian Metro’s article Belaian lelaki jambu, however, does not seem to abide by this principle, choosing instead to thrill and tantalise.
In describing massage services for gay men, the report said, “…many may have overlooked the presence of youthful masseurs who offer [sexual] services to the gay community with their deviant desires.”
It goes on to provide extensive details of available massage packages. “Two masseurs will massage a client without a scrap of clothing on” and “all packages can have an add-on service using the tongue,” it said.
The report went on to quote a customer: “Not just licking, but biting can also be included. This is all done to satisfy desires.” How the journalists represented themselves in order to get this interview was unexplained.
The article Aksi panas pengkid, lesbian also painted a picture of party-goers acting luridly and uncontrollably. “When the pengkids who were participating began dancing and spinning rapidly with various disgusting actions, the 150 to 200 visitors cheered on.”
Did the newspapers attempt to get both sides of the story by asking for the views of the LGBT community, which they portrayed as “sexually deviant” and “disgusting”? Did the media outfits that ran those reports bear in mind the ethical principle to respect the subjects being written on as human beings? What about the LGBT community’s right to be treated equally and without discrimination, as enshrined under our Federal Constitution?
Yes, maybe “sex sells”. But is that what journalism is for?
The balance of power between the media and the people they report on should also be taken into account. That’s why the Society of Professional Journalists gives guidelines on minimising harm: “Private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.”
How would media organisations justify journalists sneaking into private parties and massage parlours in the name of public need? How does providing salacious details of parties and massages advance fairness? And aren’t there other issues that deserve more investigative journalism and exposure? Corruption amongst public officials, for example. Or government overspending, or deaths in police custody and police use of firearms that cause unexplained deaths and injuries.
Boys don’t cry
In 1993 Brandon Teena, portrayed by Hilary Swank in the movie Boys Don’t Cry, was shot dead by two acquaintances in Nebraska, US. He was born Teena Brandon, but preferred to live as a man. When Teena’s friends discovered his sex, they removed his trousers in public and also raped him. When he reported the rape to the police, his murderers hunted him down and shot him, along with two other friends who sheltered him.
In 1998, Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, was tortured, tied up and left for dead. His attackers later reportedly revealed he was singled out because he was gay. He was found 12 hours after the assault in a coma and died from his injuries.
Homophobia and other violent tendencies towards the LGBT community do not form overnight. They are cultivated and nurtured in our environment, in which the mass media plays an important role. While some may strongly object to certain individuals’ sexual orientations and personal choices, it is irresponsible and unethical for journalists to objectify, humiliate and endanger the LGBT community through negative and false stereotyping. By doing so, the media, in effect, supports and lends momentum to the harassment of these vulnerable groups by state-sanctioned moral police, or non-state actors.
“Crisis of abnormal sex threatens the world,” wrote Utusan Malaysia columnist Awang Selamat, likening same-sex unions to symptoms of a rapidly-spreading disease. But it is not the LGBT community that threatens the world. It is when powerful institutions like the media judge and objectify vulnerable groups that our society is truly at risk.
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