Sunday, May 23, 2010

Professional Journalism in Malaysia

In Malaysia, it is not an easy task for any corporation to get involved in the media industry or for anyone to take up journalism as a profession. Although we the media persons in Malaysia will not suffer the threat of imprisonment, kidnap, torture, or even murder like in certain countries, even so, we do face certain impediments and are under the yoke of some national conditions, which are peculiar to Malaysia.

The Printing Presses and Publications Act is just one of them. This Act is the holy sword held by the home affairs minister. It gives the home affairs minister the absolute power to control the print and publication media in the country. The Printing Presses and Publications Act requires all print media in the country to apply for an annual renewal operation license in order to continue their yearly printing and publication works. However, when the media's applications for renewal of such media operation licenses are submitted to the Home Affairs Ministry, such annual renewal of operation license could be rejected by the home affair minister. According this printing presses and publication law, the home affair minister indeed has the absolute power to revoke or not to renew the publication license of any publication without giving an open explanation of action taken by him. Moreover, the court cannot review or investigate the decision made by the home affair minister.

Malaysia More Than 30 Laws Limiting Press Freedom
There are more than 30 other laws, which restrict the freedom of speech and freedom of expression in Malaysia. Among the well-known ones that are familiar to the people are the Sedition Act, the Defamation Act, the Contempt of Court Act and the Official Secrets Act.

There are also many other laws affecting the media operation that are relatively less known to the general public. For example, if a reporter shares his happy experience about the medical benefit from using a new drug or if he shares health care medical procedure experience with readers, without know it, this reporter may find himself prosecuted for an offence under the Medicines (Advertisement and Sale) Act. Whenever these laws are infringed by journalists wittingly or otherwise, the courts are seldom empathetic toward the media professionals.

During the past few decades, Malaysia's judicial system has never been known to be indomitable. There are also judges who do not appreciate the role played by the media either. When the media professionals unfortunately face some charges under libel law just because they try to maintain and protect the readers' right to know, it can also mean that they might also have to bear the astronomical figure of compensation charge imposed to them by the courts.

Fortunately, judicial proceedings are in public domain. These judges who came out with ridiculous or bad verdict will also bear the risk of being condemned when they go through public scrutiny.

Directive Coming From Government Officials Adds Harm to Malaysian Media
However, what causes more harm and damage to journalism in Malaysia is the behavior of some government officials who have to make routine government decisions. Without going through their careful consideration and thinking process, they can wave their swords in hands and cause great harm to freedom of expression and press freedom without having to be accountable to the public for what they said or did to the press. These government officials are vested with real powers, but they lack the compatible wisdom to fairly exercise their powers using their swords in hands. When these civil servants are driven by private agendas; or when these civil servants are backed by like-minded political masters or when these civil servants cannot come out with the right policy decision, the result of them hitting at the press can be beyond our imagination.

Of course, the aforementioned constraints imposed to the Malaysian media can also be justified sometimes. In some cases, exerting constraints on the media professionals may be necessary. This is because the media professionals are certainly not saints.

In the Malaysian society, while many people cannot pass the day without reading the newspapers, there are also some others who despise the press and resent the right the media professionals hold over the fact that the public has the right to know. British writer Oscar Wilde has once complained about the media in the United Kingdom. He said: "Somebody -- was it Burke? -- who called journalism the 'fourth power.' No doubt about this issue. That was true at the time. But when it came to present time, there is just one power left. This only power has devoured the other three powers. The secular members in the House of Lords do not speak; the clergy members of the House of the Lords have nothing to speak and the House of Commons has nothing to speak but has to find something to speak. Our noses are pulled by the media."

Nevertheless, as Malaysian journalists continue to navigate the treacherous waters with laws and acts affecting the press; and as the local media continue to subject to unfriendly treatment by the courts, the civil servants and the politicians, we are still willing to produce a daily newspaper that our readers are willing to pay to read.

Chinese Language Newspapers Face 'More' Shackles in Comparison to Others
Compared to other language newspapers, Chinese language newspapers in Malaysia face more shackles and problems than other language newspapers. Chinese newspaper readers come from the Chinese community. Naturally Chinese language newspapers will focus more reports on issues of concern to the Chinese community. But this emphasis on Chinese-centric issues in the context of a multi-racial society is regarded as insular and chauvinistic by the other communities. Seized with this kind of mindset, some civil servants and government officials see a demon in every corner in the Chinese newspapers.

Another weird phenomenon faced by the Chinese media in Malaysia is that majority of the people who like to point their fingers and criticize the contents of the reports produced and covered by the Chinese newspapers are those who do not know the Chinese language well-enough to interpret the contents of these news reports. This has resulted in the managing editors from the Chinese newspapers having to put in a lot of extra time and energy to explain some of their ridiculous criticism. The editorial boards have to waste time handling these junior government officials and minor politicians who love make ridiculous demands on the Chinese newspapers to gain self-interest.

However, the biggest problem faced by the newspapers all over the world today is the advancement of the Internet. The Internet has democratized news. News is no longer the monopoly of the news organizations. Newspapers in many countries are experiencing declines in circulations and advertising revenues. Fortunately, Chinese newspapers in Malaysia are not affected by such media trend.

What Should Malaysian Do?
In the first place we must stop complaining or whining. Yes, the Printing Presses and Publications Act must go. In this age when everyone can become citizen reporter in anywhere, at any time, this Printing Presses and Publications Act is obsolete and irrelevant. It should thereby be abolished. But we must live and work within the constraints of other laws, which restrict freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Malaysia.

No country can afford unfettered freedom of speech and freedom of expression. This is especially so in a country like Malaysia, a country with such a refined and delicate structure consisting of a multiracial, multicultural, and multireligious society.

Even the United Kingdom has a law forbidding speech that is likely to cause racial hatred or disharmony. This country also has various laws governing speech, assembly and formation of society. As for the United States, a fortress that defends freedom and provides unlimited freedom of expression, this country also has enacted laws to punish those who abuse freedom of speech. As some people with good insight said: "The United States has freedom of speech, but after the speech, they can lose their freedom instead."

In the case of Malaysia, although the Malaysian Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, but it does not guarantee freedom of the press. In this regard, journalists have no more rights than the man on the street. Instead, they even have to bear a heavier responsibility for the simple reason that they have a huge audience base.

Need To Upgrade Professional Journalism in Malaysia
The next thing we must do is to look within ourselves as the media persons. In the United States and some other countries, it is not uncommon for one to hear plagiarism and fraud in journalism. Some of these journalists act contrary to professional ethics and conduct. Their ethical breaches have made journalism among the least trusted profession in the United States.

In Malaysia, at present, different language newspapers generally face similar internal problems. These include the drop in the command of language by the media persons and the drop of the media persons' writing ability and their lack of reporting flair in providing comprehensive and good media coverage for their readers. In addition, many journalists also come with poor editing techniques. They can make wrong judgment when reporting the news. They can come out with reports that lack details or lack a sense of truthfulness in contents.

As we carry out the above self-reflection, we must continue to improve the professional standard, to make a change in the journalism profession. Otherwise, the media's role in our society is bound to dwindling.

Of course, we also hope that other people can also make the change along with the journalists. For example, government officials must know how to get along with the media. They should understand the limit of their rights; at the same time they must understand the scope that the public has the right to know. They must allow rational debate, so that we can move with on with the changing times together and with the nation in wanting to become an enlightened, open, free and advanced country.

Along the way, Malaysia's Chinese language newspapers are committed to working with the nation to achieve the goal in the promotion of racial harmony and national unity.

On this accord, the solidity of the Malaysian Chinese language newspapers in wanting to achieve such a goal is a whole-hearted affairs and desire. As such, the Chinese language newspapers should not become target of suspicion by certain sectors every now and then.

Judges, Politicians 'Must' Change Perspective on Malaysian Media
Judges also need to change their perspective on the Malaysian media. In today's information age, there is a speedy flow of information and knowledge, judges should recognize and acknowledge those responsible and reputable Malaysian newspapers. They should know the general public will keep watch and monitor the court verdicts and court decisions made by them. In the past, when a judge came out with improper court verdict, he or she could still seek shelter under the obscure and difficult to understand legal jargons, so that the wrong court verdict he or she pronounced would take many years for the wiser Malaysians to overturn their court decisions.
However, today, any bad decisions and injudicious remarks in court can instantly and widely be disseminated and subjected to public scrutiny. The discerning public will not wait for newspapers and some legal journals to discuss about them. The discerning public will make up their minds, no matter what the higher supreme courts will decide ultimately.

The people should agree that any acts of obstruction of justice are considered contempt of court. However, it is not an offence to analyze and criticize a court judgment without condemning the judge personally or ridiculing the judicial system.

In this area, people look forward to more legal expertise and legal scholars to lead the way in to achieving a consensus with the media.

Politicians should also change their attitude toward the Malaysian media. They should know how to exercise their power in hands in order to handle the Malaysian newspapers more wisely and sensibly. If politicians constantly suppress certain press statements, they will drive our readers to flock to the New Media.

But, ultimately, the survival of the traditional media or the mainstream print media will depends on how we the print media ourselves respond to the challenges and opportunities of the Internet. So, where do the print media go from here?

Mainstream Print Media Process Own Resources, Credibility
The mainstream print media have long historical foundation and infrastructure. They also process credibility and resources that the New Media lacks. Mainstream print media processes relatively solid and healthier strength in both manpower and financial resources than the Internet media to support their daily operations. The mainstream print media can carry out sound operations. Over the years, the mainstream print media have established credibility that was built step-by-step over a long period.

The New Media are very readable indeed, and they can be highly persuasive as well. But, honestly, do you really believe most of the outrageous and sensational stories they publish?

The authenticity of the New Media may not be reliable. But in providing real time information, their performance is outstanding. They race against time to synchronize event as it unfolds. However, they also dare to come out with report without the verification process, and thus can come out with false reports because of lack of verification time.

In contrast, if we mainstream the print media got our facts wrong, we had to face the wrath of our readers the next day, suffer erosion of our credibility that we built over the years. The people might even have to bear the legal liability.

Mainstream Print Media 'Must' Catch Up With Changing Times
Nevertheless, mainstream print media must accept the reality that even as they try to resist change they cannot change the fact that this is the information age. Instead, when our readers are now going through a transitional period from the print media to the New Media, what we must think about is how we should face such challenge, how we should manage ourselves.

The issue, of course, is directly related to the financial factor. Nowadays, what netizens want and demand is to have free access to information. All mainstream print media are now trying different ways to find a niche and a new root through the massive flow of traffic in the Internet community.
The direction of journalism in Malaysia is clear -- It is a part of the global village. Malaysia cannot let the world come to a halt, then turn away.

Malaysians must catch up with changing times.

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