Unmuzzle the media

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In the aftermath of recent rallies, fiction writer Beth Yahp pens an open letter  to the Prime Minister, urging him to unmuzzle the media and practise real democracy.

"When this integral pillar of any democratic system is obstructed and
belittled, as it is in Malaysia, we cannot claim to live in a
democracy," she writes. "Our mainstream media then become merely  tools of the
State, used to hoodwink, brainwash and intimidate the people they should
rightly be serving. Instead, we, the people, are spoon-fed, led and
expected to go quietly like sheep to any foregone conclusion."

26 September 2007 saw 2,000 lawyers on a “Walk for Justice” to defend the good name and protest the sliding standards of their profession. “When lawyers march,” said Ambiga Sreenevasan, President of the Bar Council, “something must be wrong.”

On  Saturday, 10 November 2007, some 40,000 people from all walks of life and all ages walked through rain-drenched Kuala Lumpur, skirting roadblocks, locked LRT stations, FRU batons, tear gas and water cannons, as well as weeks of misinformation and propaganda through the mainstream media and hacked alternative media. They marched to show their disappointment in the current electoral system and their hopes for reform.

Malaysian citizens travelled for hours through the night from all over the country to play cat-and-mouse in Kuala Lumpur with an intimidating array of security forces, whose role was clearly not to secure our safety.


Beaten with batons and shields

I saw men armed only with shouted slogans beaten with batons and shields and thrown to the ground. I saw an old woman in a wheelchair halted by a barricade of troops, wielding a deafening siren at her ears. I saw a child clinging to his mother’s shoulders being crushed back, and back. He looked terrified, and rightly so. But he was there, like his parents, to stand up for his own future.

This was at Jalan Pasar, not Masjid Jamek, where, in spite of what IGP Tan Sri Musa Hassan described as police “restraint” (Sunday Star, 11 Nov 2007), unarmed marchers, including journalists, were beaten, teargassed and bombarded by chemical-laced water cannons. At Jalan Pasar, we faced two rows of riot police, smashing batons against their shields. I saw and photographed people dropping to the ground around me.

This should be the journalist’s privilege, to be allowed to witness and report the uncensored fruits of that act of witness. But in this country, the journalists and their editors are not afforded even this, or any other kind of professional privilege, or protection, in order to carry out their jobs according to the Journalists’ Code of Ethics. That is, among other things, to pursue factual accuracy and report objectively, without fear or favour.

Mouth pieces of the State

Instead, journalism in Malaysia seems to be ruled by a Code of Fear and Favour. Here, our mainstream journalists and editors are directly or indirectly on the State’s payroll, and therefore accountable to the State. Those who aren’t are kept on a tight leash of precarious licences and legislation designed to pit self-censorship against financial ruin. Which the bosses will prioritise is a no-brainer.

It seems to me our media professionals do their best to navigate these treacherous waters, getting by in terms of professional pride through little acts of bravery, defiance and subterfuge. The travesty of it is that, in a true democracy, they shouldn’t have to.

Our journalists and editors shouldn’t have to find themselves in the pitiful position of being cowed mouthpieces of the State, obediently failing to report once a news blackout is ordered, or “reporting” factual inaccuracies of an astounding magnitude.

Like most of your state controlled media, Prime Minister Abdullah, The Sunday Star reported only the IGP’s version of the events of Sat, 10 Nov. Journalism 101 requires a range of eyewitnesses to describe an event objectively yet only your Ministers were allowed airtime; only aggrieved shopkeepers were interviewed and photos of traffic jams published, to support our Deputy PM’s lament that the march only served to disrupt traffic, create loss of business and “mar the general perception others have of our society”.

The police were depicted as being “forced” to use their batons, boots, shields, helmets, trucks, water cannons and helicopters against unarmed men, women and children (New Sunday Times, November 11, 2007).


Only 4,000 – not 40,000?

This reconstruction of reality is one that I, and 40,000 other marchers, do not recognise. In spite of what we saw and experienced, we are told that we were only 4,000 in number and that 245 of us were detained, as opposed to the 24 I later saw released at IPK (Police Contingent Headquarters), Kuala Lumpur. It was later reported (NST, 12 November 2007) that the majority of detentions were pre-emptive, taking place outside Kuala Lumpur the day before. The reasons for arrest included being in possession of yellow T-shirts and bandanas.

Yes, there were massive traffic jams in KL that day, and yes, I saw shopkeepers hurriedly pull down their shutters – but only when the FRU and police amassed in battle formation at Central Market. Logic tells us that the traffic jams were caused by numerous police roadblocks and other hindrances to public transport as much as by our march, which was marshalled and orderly.

We were constantly told to keep to the pavements, not to throw rubbish or disrupt public property, and even not to trample on plants along our way. Many people stuck in jams wound down their windows as we passed, smiling and shaking our hands. Others looked annoyed, of course.

I’m sitting at my local late night kopi tiam as I write this. It’s filled with college students chatting and watching football to go with their teh tarik and cigarettes. I can see how successful your media machinery is, Prime Minister, from what they say. They use the word “riots” to talk about the march, which even a police spokesman described as, for the most part, peaceful (RTM2 news, 10 November 2007).

This is no surprise given the propaganda clips that have been running as part of news bulletins on RTM1 and 2 for the past few months, inter-cutting flag-burning with demonstrators getting their heads bashed in. These, as any ad man will confirm, effectively equate demonstrations of any sort with escalating acts of violence on both sides. “Ini bukan budaya kita (This is not our culture),” are the stern words of warning.

On TraxxFM, I’ve heard an odd song about democracy being played frequently, a lullaby sung in a soothing paternal voice, about how taking democracy to the streets leads to a loss of self-respect and violence, which is not our way. This song is in stark contrast to the ones TraxxFM’s hip and joking DJs usually play. 

Independence achieved without street struggle?

This psychological embedding seems odd, Prime Minister, in the year we celebrate our 50 years of Independence, which was won precisely by our forefathers taking their struggle for freedom, equality and justice to the streets, as well as the to media and the discussion table. They did so peacefully then, as we did last Saturday.

Prime Minister Abdullah, one of the reasons we marchers, men, women, children, and even incapacitated old folks, braved confrontation in the streets of Kuala Lumpur on 10 Nov was to call for “equal access to the media” as part of Bersih’s push for electoral reforms, including the use of indelible ink, clean electoral rolls and the abolition of untraceable postal votes.

I didn’t wear yellow for the march because, even though I’m a sympathiser with the struggle for electoral reform, I am also a witness to both sides of the story. But I wore my yellow ribbon of “press freedom”, proudly, even though I’m not a journalist. I’m still wearing it now, with the poignant realisation that I can only write this letter, without fear or favour, precisely because I’m not a mainstream Malaysian journalist. Of course, whether any of your editors will publish it or not is entirely a different matter.

That little scrap of ribbon, like the seemingly frail ribbon of marchers patiently weaving their way from all over the city to the Yang Di Pertuan Agong’s palace last Saturday, is symbolic of something far larger and far more important than our aching legs or bruises or our shivers caused by sitting uncomplainingly in the rain while the leaders delivered our memorandum to the King.

It symbolises what you have encouraged us repeatedly to celebrate and embrace: our “Merdeka Spirit” of independence that causes the rakyat to come out, in spite of fear and intimidation, to show their grave concern when the state of things seems very wrong indeed.

Despite ongoing attempts at historical revisionism, this is decidedly a part of our Malaysian culture. (Please refer to Fahmi Reza’s blog for reproductions of reportage from our own newspapers, The Straits Times, 1947: “Mass Meeting Votes Against Elections”; and The Malaya Tribune, 1946: “Malays and Rulers Demonstrate Against Union Plans”.)

With all due respect, Prime Minister, your admonition on the eve of the march: “Saya pantang dicabar,” (Utusan Malaysia, 9 November 2007) is rather an odd thing for the leader of a democratic nation to say, given that the basic rule of democracy is the right of all citizens to challenge, and to defend against challenge. Everyone is entitled to this right, whether in their living rooms or in Parliament.

Challenges and debates also constantly take place in the media, whose fundamental role is to provide factual information and objective viewpoints by journalists and editors, as well as to allow equal access to publication and broadcast by proponents from either side of any argument.

Only in this way can we, ordinary citizens, partake in democracy. Only then can we weigh up differing statements and opinions against accountable facts. We may be allowed to vote, yes, but how can we choose effectively without freedom of media access and information?

Tool of the State to hoodwink, brainwash and intimidate

When this integral pillar of any democratic system is obstructed and belittled, as it is in Malaysia, we cannot claim to live in a democracy. Our mainstream media then become merely tools of the State, used to hoodwink, brainwash and intimidate the people they should rightly be serving. Instead, we, the people, are spoon-fed, led and expected to go quietly like sheep to any foregone conclusion.

If we beg to differ, offer alternative information and viewpoints, or even protest, we are called "beruk". I rather think it preferable to be a monkey —  curious, inventive and mischievous — than a sheep trotting meekly to its pen, or the slaughterhouse, nose pointed to the ground.

Prime Minister, we are indeed not Pakistan or Burma, as your Information Minister  Zainuddin Maidin blustered on Al Jazeera (10 November 2007), accusing them of presenting a contrary view to what had appeared on our Malaysian news, and of only talking to the opposition, not Government representatives—even as they were interviewing him.

This is a case of the pot calling the kettle black, since almost no opposition figures are allowed to speak in our mainstream media, although their images are used in conjunction with images of street violence, for example, to influence viewers’ opinions about them.

“Malaysia… is a democratic country,” Zainuddin fumed. But based on your State’s handling of the rakyat’s peaceful march last Saturday, Prime Minister, and your own media coverage prior to and about the actual event, it’s hard to entirely agree.

Unfortunately for Malaysia, this is the perception that will be further broadcast internationally by journalists and editors who are fortunately less muzzled than their mainstream Malaysian colleagues.

Therefore, Prime Minister Abdullah, I sincerely urge you and your government, as our democratically elected leaders, to “walk the talk” and unmuzzle our journalists, editors and broadcasters. I entreat you to fully and fairly endorse and practice democracy in our country. That is, democracy for everyone, not just a powerful few.

Beth Yahp
12 November 2007

Postscript in response to comments posted on a blog:

Thanks for your thoughts and responses. Yes, please do disseminate this piece widely – I’ve mostly had a wall of silence from the mainstream press that I sent my letter to, and one reply saying: “Your articulate open letter was a pleasure to read. However, for the reasons you describe so well, we cannot risk publishing this. Thanks for speaking up for Malaysian journalists.”

Yes, it seems to me important for us to speak up now, everyone of us with eyes and a conscience. I would include journalists in this category – whether officially gagged or not. They are the front-line defenders of our freedom to think and express our thoughts and experiences to the wider community. When journalists have lost their courage to speak up, when they are forced to accept the status quo without any questions, things are very serious for the rest of us indeed.

As Tourism Minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor reminded journalists, “On this earth, we can do whatever we like, but you must remember that when you die, you have to answer to someone. So whatever you write, especially the press, write responsibly… ( I’m not asking you to write truthfully, but write responsibly…” (Malaysiakini,  4 Oct 2007)

Apart from the fact that this violates the journalists’ Code of Ethics, which is akin to the Hippocratic Oath for doctors, what he doesn’t elaborate on is who journalists are supposed to be responsible to: those holding the strings of power? Or the rakyat?

It’s so very important to go on the record now, because things seem to be reaching Monty Pythonesque proportions in terms of the cartoon reality we are expected to swallow, and the stringent limitations enforced on what we are allowed to see, say, hear, read, think and do – and what we are allowed to “believe” is real… I keep expecting a giant cartoon boot to fall out of the sky and crush me at any moment, accompanied by tinny circus music.

A note on historical revisionism and DPM Najib Razak’s continuing to insist that “street demonstrations are not part of Malaysian culture” (The Star, 12 Nov): please see Fahmi Reza’s fine posts, which reproduce pages from our own newspapers, reporting on Malaysia’s struggle for independence in the late 1940s.

These news reports show us in black-and-white our forefathers’ (and mothers’) struggle in the streets against an oppressive regime. Definitely, and hearteningly, a part of Malaysian culture!

In those days, however, the police took steps to ensure that demonstrations of the rakyat’s concern were safe for everyone, helping with traffic control rather than hindering the people’s progress at every step of the way.

Perhaps, in Monty Python mode, what our current newspapers should be running as headlines is: “Dulu British, Kini Umno”?

Petaling Jaya,
14 November 2007

Beth Yahp’s prize-winning novel, The Crocodile Fury, has been translated and published in several languages. She wrote the libretto for Liza Lim’s contemporary opera Moon Spirit Feasting, which premiered at the 2000 Adelaide International Festival of the Arts, with productions also in Melbourne, Berlin, Zurich and Tokyo. It won the Australian APRA Best Classical Composition Award in 2002. Beth’s short fiction, essays and articles have appeared in numerous publications in Australia, South-east Asia and Europe. Her latest fictional work, about sexual double standards in Malaysia, appears in HEAT 14 (Giramondo Press, Sydney, Spring 2007). Beth is currently Fiction Editor for Off the Edge, a Malaysian business/ lifestyle/ culture magazine.

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