Hindraf rally: Mainstream media deny stark reality at their own peril

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The mainstream press yesterday (26
November), particularly The Star and the New Straits Times, appeared
to have shared something in common: a blinkered perspective of the
recent Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) rally, and their denial of the reality on the ground. The Star flashed its front-page banner
headline, "Show of defiance” while the NST splashed a screaming
front-page headline, "Defiance", both suggesting that the
illegal assembly of seemingly recalcitrant demonstrators deserved the
chemical-laced water and tear gas fired by the police. A balanced
treatment of the incident was given by theSun in its front-page
report“Police break up Hindraf rally”.

The inside pages of The Star, for
instance, only reinforced the way the Hindraf rally was framed on the
front page. Hence, you got “Cops forced to use tear gas, water
cannons"; “Cop hurt trying to control crowd”; and “Batu Caves
temple property damaged, 69 protesters held”. This is not to say
that the protesters as a whole were completely blameless, but the way
the stories were written suggests a deliberate endeavour to heap all
the blame on the protesters. Besides, there were also protesters who
sustained injuries.

There was one other news item in The
Star
which carried the headline, “Muhyuddin: Other races have poor
too”. The story referred to what was said by Umno vice-president
Muhyuddin Yassin, among other things: there were “poor people among
the Malays and Chinese as well and poverty was not just among the
Indians”. This is tantamount to saying that since there are also
pockets of poverty in other communities, what’s the big deal with the poverty plaguing the Indian community? 

READ MORE:  Fair comment - or personal opinion?

Then, of course, MIC president Samy
Vellu was quoted in a report titled “No need for street protests” as saying that
“people should use existing forums to voice their problems and not
resort to street protests”. This seems to be a desperate effort by the authorities to mask the fact that in a thriving
democracy peaceful demonstrations are allowed. Besides, in our society
what “existing forums” are really available to the poor and the
weak? Public forums? the mainstream media? 

In the NST, the inside pages flaunted headlines such as “Protesters defy order to disperse, 240 held”;
“Govt won’t allow rally to turn into racial issue”; “IGP:
They’d no intent to give memo”; and “Hotels, shops hit hard by
demonstration”. Although the NST did carry an editorial that
recognised the “disaffection” of the marginalised and
dispossessed sections of the ethnic Indian community, it however
blamed the Hindraf organisers for having wreaked so-called untold
damage “not only on race and religious relations in our society,
but also on the country”. It apparently didn’t occur to the
newspaper concerned that certain government policies and the manner
in which they have been implemented could have contributed to the
disenchantment of certain quarters in the Indian community and,
consequently, to the shaky ethnic relations in the country. 

Although it is true that the Hindraf
gathering had been deemed “illegal” (through the use of an undemocratic law) by
the authorities, the mainstream papers concerned, however, cannot hold
the high moral ground especially when they deny the marginalised and
the politically weak in society the much-needed space to express
their grievances, their anxieties and their dreams, and also their
right to reply. 

To take a concrete example, The Star
today also carried a long piece by a certain Joseph Raj, presumably
its own journalist, who argued that while there are problems faced by
the ethnic Indian community, “at the end of the day, it is in the
hands of the Indians whether they want to do better for themselves
and their future generations. Street protests are definitely not the
answer.” True, human agency has a role to play in improving the
lot of one’s community, but there are also the institutional and
structural obstacles, such as institutional discrimination and racism,
that one has to grapple with, as observed by those in Hindraf. In this regard, it is only fair that ordinary Indians, if not the Hindraf organisers, be given similar
space to respond to Raj’s contention. But is that possible?

The norm among most major
newspapers is that the ruling and business elites are accorded more
than sufficient space to promote their vested interests. For
instance, in the midst of the Hindraf rally coverage, the NST in
particular gave four-column space to a piece titled “We were shown in a bad
light” (in its Letters column) by (mis)Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin to explain –
in relatively decent English – his lacklustre performance during a recent
interview with satellite TV station Al Jazeera over the Bersih rally
on 10 November 2007. He predictably lamented that Al
Jazeera
has been influenced by some Western forces or interests to
the extent that it has become ‘unbalanced’ and ‘dishonest’ in
its reporting, particularly of Malaysian domestic affairs. For the
uninitiated, this is the predicament usually faced by most ruling
politicians who aren’t used to the inquisitive and non-pliant
nature of many foreign journalists.

And, finally, this brings us to the
enlightened theSun’s editorial, “Letting other voices be heard”,
which called for the appreciation of communication and dialogue among
the stakeholders in society. The people, it suggested, should be
given the space to express their views and the authorities should
learn to listen. It is hoped that the daily concerned would not earn
the wrath of the powers that be for trying to tell the earthy truth.

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