Laman Webantu   KM2: 6124 File Size: 6.5 Kb *

| KM2 Index |

MGG: The NST defines "fair and accurate" reporting
By M.G.G. Pillai

14/10/2001 12:00 am Sun

The New Straits Times, in a comment yesterday (12 Oct 2001, p2) by Ashraf Abdullah, insists that "the content of anything that sells itself as journalism should be free of any motive other than informing its readers". To drive the point home, he adds: "It should not be influenced by anything else." The Associated Press did not get the nuance right on what the Prime Minister said in Malay in Parliament about the Osama affair, and an emphasis other than he intended went through. As usual, the Prime Minister's press handlers did not release a translation, as they should have, for anything as newsy as his comment on the current war to pulverise Afghanistan is. Even Bernama takes its time to release the "proper" version of what he said. Why is it so difficult to have an English translation of what was said in Parliament available for important statements like these?

In the rush to get the news across, especially in a news agency in a breaking story as this, these mistakes occur. The story often is rewritten at the news centre, in Tokyo, London or New York (in the case of AP). This is one problem news agency reporters face all the time. There is a deadline every minute somewhere in the world, and story once printed is rarely corrected. That has not to do with a deliberate bias, as Ashraf implies, but more human failings, and often the importance the desk gives to the mistake or, to not put a fine point to it, the subject. Would the New Straits Times as assiduously correct a deliberate misrepresentation of Mr Lim Kit Siang's, or Dato' Fadhil Noor's, views? Yet, their views are often misrepresented on its pages. If they half misreport the Prime Minister as they do the opposition readers, the retribution comes quick enough: the editor-in-chief himself could lose his job.

So, the New Straits Times's concern for accuracy in journalism is not for its pages, but for the foreign media. It tells us, do as I say, not as I do. Malaysia's anger with the foreign media came with the Anwar Ibrahim affair in 1998. When the media showed how tendetiously and capriciously she reacted, it showed an underside of Malaysia that few in the past wanted to highlight. When you are a friend of the West, you are allowed to break the fingers of a recalcitrant opponent, and he would be blamed for it. It is realpolitik that dictates it, the foreign media as the local, and there is little different from the ministry of information's attempt to muzzle malaysiakini ( as the US government's of the Qatari television station, Al-Jazeera: both governments do not want an apposite view to challenge its own.

Ashraf wants all reporters to write only what they see or hear. He says the foreign media is invariably absent in Parliament, even when the Prime Minister speaks, and that, he infers, makes them bad reporters. He extends that to insist foreign media are fond of carrying wrong reports. He does not understand who the reporter works for. He does not work for the Malaysian ministry of information, even if he has to get an accreditation from that body of misinformation. He writes for a foreign audience, what he writes appears in foreign newspapers, radio and television, and is written with that in mind. A reporter for the New Straits Times who writes critically of his government or favourably of the opposition would find his rice bowl smashed soon enough.

What the Malaysian government can do is to ensure that what is written is as favourable as it can be. For that time and effort must be spent. The government must cultivate the foreign correspondents if it wants a good press. I have been a foreign correspondent for most of my working life, and I have had no difficulty in getting to speak to whom I want to in almost any country in Asia but in Malaysia and Singapore. If you have the time, you would try harder, but when deadlines beckon, you write with what you have, and that, often in Malaysia, is without an official response. In Singapore, at least you have an efficient information ministry who could tell you before you start whether you would get the interviews you request or not. In Malaysia, the media handlers' phone would remain unanswered, or when it is, they are at innumerable meetings. If Malaysia wants a good press, it must be proactive. It must have articulate officials prepared to brief visiting journalists and any who wants to understand.

That is not possible in today's Malaysia. Those who want interviews with cabinet ministers or even officials must go through layers of media handlers, often in several ministries, over more than a few days, before the request is registered. By that time, it is time for the reporter to leave. I cannot get to talk to any one officially. Anyone who talks to me is marked. So I talk to them unofficially and often in secret. I get what I want, usually more than I had hoped for. I do not quote what they say, and we often ignore each other when we meet. Once I wanted one source to talk to me on the record for a sensible policy the Malaysian government was implementing. He refused. He did not want trouble. I did not write that story. If the government is frightened of even talking about the good things, then why should I bother to write about it?

But when foreign correspondents come, they talk to me along with others of the tribe. I give them a view not as a government information ministry official but as a critical journalist looking at Malaysia as I would Ougadougou. Others, with their own experiences in mind, would put their personal experiences across as well. In short, the government battle is lost because if would only talk to those who would praise them skyhigh, and the world's media is not about to stomach that. Malaysia's bad press has more to do with her own shortcomings than those who report what happens here for the outside world. What I still cannot understand of this AP caper is why did not an official take it upon himself to ask the AP quietly to correct without making a big issue of it, as the government has done.

M.G.G. Pillai