Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Media independence: Don't just leave it to the journalists

I refer to Mirror, Mirror by A. Asohan on StarMag June 15.

I was at the National Press Club when de facto Law minister Zaid Ibrahim gave a disingenuous speech to a roomful of journalists, bloggers and activists who work for press freedom.

He seemed to be the appropriate person from the government to be invited to speak in the Walk for Press Freedom event on June 1st. Firstly, because he seemed like a progressive fella with his talk and action on reforming the judiciary.

Secondly, because he is the de facto law minister, he would perhaps do something about the oppressive laws that continue to muzzle the media.

I think his speech was not only condescending, but showed his lack of understanding of the issues at stake. He started off by saying that he was not there to support press freedom nor was he the right person for that matter to be addressed to. Then he lectured the retinue of journalists and activists that they should blame themselves for the lack of media freedom, and NOT the government.

I think if we were more self-respectable, we would’ve just walked out. Luckily, some of us boo-ed and jeer-ed him. Afterall, we didn’t go there to be lectured by some politician about media freedom. We want to see if this government after March 8 is committed to media freedom, as it seems to be, about the state of the judiciary.

A media of integrity, a fair and balanced media, is not just the prerogative of journalists. It is in the interest of everyone – it is the right of the citizens in a democratic country. It should provide a fair and balance view of issues important for the people, and to be the voice of the voiceless, rather than a mouthpiece of the government.

After Operasi Lallang in 1987, the government under the former Prime Minister effectively brought all mainstream media under its control either directly, or indirectly. Newspapers were bought over by political parties and laws like the Printing and Publication Act, the Official Secrets Act and the Sedition Act instill fear and self-censorship among its senior editors and working journalists.

In this climate of fear, the lack of critical journalism is precisely what’s driving people online to get their news. The explosion of bloggers and online news and the millions of hits they get show the people’s hunger for REAL NEWS and VIEWS that matter. That power is now accorded some respect after the fallout of the recent general election. Good. Now let’s hope something is done to lift those laws that curtail the independence of mainstream media.

If we leave it to the current batch of working journalists and senior editors to revamp the state of the media, with those laws still hanging over their heads like a Damocles’ sword, we won’t get anywhere. After all, their bread and butter depend on retaining the status quo.

In the same way, let me ask Zaid, why didn’t he tell the judges to clean the judiciary up? Can we leave it to the judges to clean themselves up, when some of them are implicated as beneficiaries of executive interference? Why talk about an independent commission to elect judges, why bother when judges themselves haven’t said anything about overhauling the justice system?

A strong, independent media is an integral institution of a functioning democracy. Like an effective, independent judiciary – those two pillars of democracy should not just be left just to working judges or working journalists. They are too important.

And this time I agree with Asohan - the press, the powers-that-be and the public – are stakeholders here. It is in the interest of the Malaysian public to be served news that is fair and balanced and that reflects their needs and aspirations. If you believe that you deserve to know the truth and make informed decision, make it known by signing on this petition

Come on, take that first step.

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