Hacks and Hussies

How much cruder and more vulgar can Malaysian mainstream media become?

by Zaharom Nain

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Never has such a large segment of the Malaysian public been more disenchanted with their leaders than at the present moment. Yet never have the Malaysian mainstream media been so out of touch with this public sentiment.

Instead of addressing head-on the people’s many legitimate concerns and anxieties, the mainstream media - and mainstream journalists, by and large - have ignored these concerns, dismissed them as the preoccupations of agitators and troublemakers out to create discord in society, or give sorry excuses for the media’s own shortcomings.

In what can only be described as a lame and pathetic attempt at defending the indefensible, a senior Malaysian reporter from the mainstream media recently wrote in a regional media newsletter that despite everything that’s happened in Malaysia over the past couple of years, there are still ‘conscientious editors and journalists who do what they can to push those imaginary boundaries (of responsible journalism).’ Surely she was talking about ‘imaginary editors and journalists’ instead of imaginary boundaries?

Colonised Minds

Evidently we live in a period of contradictions. We have seen politicians reminding us incessantly - especially during the general election campaign period - not to allow Malaysia to fall to its ‘enemies’ and not let our country be ‘re-colonised’.

But recently, those politicians, the same sponsors of these earlier messages seemed to take an extended television commercial break from their own messages when they welcomed the year 2000. They revealed their true identities when many of them lost their head, and wildly celebrated a millennium that had not quite arrived. They were taken in and intoxicated by the hype propagated principally by the very people who had colonised us many years ago.

Subsequently that ‘commercial break’ was transformed into a badly scripted scene from a Malay television drama. Just when Muslims had barely begun the season of ‘bermaaf-maafan’ (forgiveness), individuals linked to opposition groups were being nabbed and charged under archaic laws which were introduced by the very same people who colonised us many years ago.

Whatever the official explanations for that crackdown, the attacks on the opposition and the ‘alternative media’ such as Harakah and Detik, do not bode well for free speech and democracy in our country. It would be more accurate to think of such attacks as the continuation of a rather barbaric ‘politics of vengeance’.

These attacks reveal how desperate some quarters have become, needing to use force when reason and open debate should prevail. They illustrate how undemocratic our political situation has become, despite the inane assertions by apologists that democracy ‘a la Malaysia’, whatever that means, is alive and kicking.

Cringing and Whingeing

This already pathetic situation becomes even more deplorable when mainstream so-called journalists and their unions utter not a single word of protest. All they do is to cower and make excuses for not defending either principles or their colleagues.

But then these are the same editors and journalists who did not raise even a whimper of protest when page after page of their newspapers was splashed with Barisan Nasional ‘advertisements’ clearly aimed at intimidating Malaysian citizens during the election campaign. No, these editors and journalists were too scared to stand their ground and say that these bully-boy tactics had absolutely no place in a democracy.

Forty-three years after Merdeka, a step away from (the real start of) a new millennium, and only a heartbeat away from the oft-hyped year of 2020, one would think that Malaysian mainstream journalists who write or talk about democracy, caring society and ‘developed country’ status would be above all that kind of crude and vulgar ‘journalism’. One would think that the ‘editors’ would have the decency to exclude those crude and vulgar images of violence to be published in the pages of their ‘newspapers’.

Mediocrity Rules

Unfortunately, there are almost no limits to how low they can go. True to form, the mainstream media hacks offer ‘analyses’ that are so one-sided that only they themselves could have been convinced. For instance, there was this tabloid which conducted two silly, unrepresentative ‘voter surveys’. One survey was full of holes. The other bore a gloss of ‘scientific reliability’ just because it was conducted by an academic (hack!). Both studies were roundly criticised by other respected academics without the ‘researchers’ being able to defend the surveys.

Still, along came a lackey reporter who probably could not read, who picked up the sorry pieces of data from the faulty study, twisted the statistics further, and came out with grand, but false, claims that - surprise, surprise – supported BN. (I’ve been told that this politically ambitious lackey goes to the same church as some top political leaders in order to be noticed.). Only a hack like this can write with much pomposity without realising that the thinking public regards his writing in the same light as the braying of an ass.

Of course, he’s not the only one. Many more have crawled out of the woodwork, hoping to make their presence felt, each trying to outdo the mediocrity of the others. But such mediocrity pales in comparison with the mediocrity of the so-called ‘broadcast journalists’ – sadly, nothing more than hack reporters, except made up like Barbie dolls, and then, more hussy than brainy, they earnestly run down the opposition.

Opposite Effect

Given the deplorable state of the mainstream media, popular attempts to increase democratic space must not be derailed. Ironically the blatant arrogance and abuse of power by those who supposedly know what’s good for the public have made the Malaysian public much more aware of the need to defend and extend democracy in our country.

Malaysians now demand more critical and less compliant media. Many have stopped buying and reading what they consider to be purely propaganda sheets. Many also treat local television the way it deserves to be treated - as escapist entertainment and fiction, far removed from reality. Malaysians have indeed become more enlightened.

Surely the authorities can’t be so dumb as not to realise that silencing newspapers like Harakah - even if on a technicality, even if temporarily - will have the opposite effects to the ones they desire.

It would be a monumental mistake to silence Harakah and equate this silencing with a sealing of the cracks. Even a child can see that far from mending the split in the Malay community or helping to restore so-called Malay unity, such a move will exacerbate the split. Hard though it may be for some to swallow, the fact is Harakah did not cause or precipitate the split. The real causes of the split lie closer to home, in the backyard of a particular party.

Moreover only someone who’s spent his whole life in cloud cuckoo land would believe that silencing Harakah – or other ‘alternative media’ – will have disenchanted Malaysians rushing back to subscribe to the mainstream papers and lapping up whatever these papers spew.

Trust and Credibility

The fact is, these mainstream papers have lost what little credibility they had because of their blatantly shabby, unprofessional, one-sided coverage of significant events over the past couple of years. Many Malaysians no longer trust these papers. And trust is not something that can be regained overnight, by closing down an opponent’s paper.

At a personal level, regaining trust would require honestly addressing core issues, such as one’s dignity, professionalism and ethics. At an institutional level, it would require a re-questioning of structures of power and a consideration of genuine organisational reform, guided by professionalism that makes sense to the rakyat, not merely to the powerful few.

Silencing Harakah will hit PAS financially. But it is fanciful to believe that this alone will reduce PAS’s influence. In this age of the much-touted Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC), unless computers and copy machines are banned as well, Harakah’s website will be updated, upgraded, made more canggih (sophisticated or stylish); its pages will be more avidly downloaded, copied and widely distributed - irrespective of the new multimedia laws, and regardless of the ‘jamming’ devices that can be used.

Proponents of the MSC should be thankful that while many of our ministries (and ministers) are not quite up to speed as far as the new technology is concerned, many opposition groups, on the other hand, have taken up the call to utilise the technology.

Instead of going all out to silence Harakah, among other things, thus creating another major national and international public relations blunder, driving a wedge deeper between Malaysians, and further shaming all of us, the authorities should start thinking about conciliatory strategies.

After all, we constantly call ourselves a religious people and a pious nation. We boast about becoming a ‘developed country’. Isn’t it time we stopped allowing our country to be shamed and held to ransom by all manner of hacks and hussies?

Isn’t it time to say, ‘Enough is enough’?