The following press analysis was originally written for the New Straits Times following its invitation to us to contribute a regular column. But this first contribution to the column was eventually rejected by the establishment daily's powers-that-be for reasons best known to themselves.
The 'invisibles' and social injustice
by Mustafa K Anuar
In life, they say, what you don’t know won’t hurt you. But this expression can only be applied in very limited areas of our personal lives. In most cases, it does hurt – and often terribly – not to know about your democratic rights as citizens, about the state of the country’s economy, and, in the context of a caring society, about the living conditions of your fellow citizens, especially the poor and the dispossessed.
Put differently, burying your head in the sand only leaves your behind exposed to some of nature’s more dangerous elements.
It is here that a socially responsible newspaper, among other social institutions, is expected to help narrow any gap in information and knowledge that is crucial to the survival of a democracy and to the betterment of the citizenry. Any socially vital information that is missed, wittingly or otherwise, by a newspaper must be deeply regretted as it can be politically and socially damaging in the long run.
Sidelining of issues
To be sure, the conscious sidelining of certain issues, individuals and groups in society by a newspaper is not only undemocratic but also injurious to its social standing, integrity and credibility. It only drags down the overall standards of journalism in society. As you know, credibility takes a long time to build, and no amount of gimmickry, such as providing prize-winning contests, can be a reliable quick fix.
Sociologist Gaye Tuchman gave a name to this act of omitting or marginalising certain individuals and groups in society: symbolic annihilation. In her study of the media’s treatment of women in 1978, she found out that the media condemned, trivialised and omitted women. This is especially so when women were made ‘invisible’ in the media’s reporting, made non-existent as if to suggest that ‘out of sight’ would ensure ‘out of mind’.
This concept can also be further applied to other groups and certain issues in our society. The reporting of the mainstream press tends to gravitate towards the powers-that-be to such a degree that others have been pushed aside partially or completely.
One example that shouldn’t escape our attention is the recent series of street demonstrations that were staged on March 3, 11 and 26 in the streets of Kuala Lumpur, especially in the area around the Kuala Lumpur City Centre in the shadow of that mega project, the Twin Towers. A large number of concerned Malaysians and civil society groups gathered together peacefully to protest against the recent hike in fuel prices.
And yet, major dailies, namely The Star and the New Straits Times, chose to ignore this politically and socially significant event that witnessed the coming together of Malaysians irrespective of ethnicity, creed and class. Surely the reporting of this event would have helped not only to inform fellow Malaysians about the latest developments in the country but also to stir a sense of compassion among readers towards their fellow Malaysians, particularly the working class, thereby promoting a caring society.
Many readers, especially those who don’t subscribe to online newspaper Malaysiakini, which consciously provided extensive coverage of the event, got wind of the demonstrations only after Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Mohd Nazri Abdul Aziz comments. He warned in The Star on 28 March that the government would no longer tolerate future street demonstrations. This ministerial statement reinforces the suspicion that most dailies shied away from reporting on these protests because it might incur the wrath of the government.
This is not to deny that there have been attempts by the mainstream English language press in particular to provide information of public and national significance. For instance, the New Sunday Times on 2 April splashed a front page headline on Chief Judge of Malaya Tan Sri Norma Yaakob’s grave concern about the many deaths in police custody and the delays in conducting inquests into those deaths – something quite related to civil society’s demand for the setting up of a police watchdog.
While such reporting is commendable, it however begs the question: why didn’t the mainstream media take up civil society’s earlier calls for an urgent and systematic investigation into the deaths in police custody? Does a call only become newsworthy if and when important people in government make it? Are certain civil society groups on the blacklist of the newspapers concerned?
The recent past is also witness to certain changes that have been taking place in the English language press. For example, there seem to be an inclination towards providing more special features, columns and interviews, which may be associated with keen competition for better circulation figures and precious advertising revenue. These changes should in general be welcomed.
On balance, some features, interviews and guest columns that were published by these dailies have been interesting and to a certain extent intellectually stimulating. For example, theSun carried an article on 24 March 2006 penned by guest columnist Param Cumaraswamy, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, which critically discussed Nazri’s threat to use the Sedition Act against non-Muslims deemed to be meddling with things Islamic. The New Straits Times, as another example, has also carried interesting pieces about women and Islam.
But, lo and be hold, these guest and special columns, interviews and features can, to a certain extent, also double up as a convenient mechanism to push aside certain issues that the newspapers consider too controversial and sensitive to the powers-that-be. In other words, selective highlighting and symbolic annihilation can also occur via this route.
To paraphrase the NST’s group editor Brendan Pereira (NST, 27 March), it is much better to address certain issues now rather than let them fester. Indeed, burying our heads in the sand won’t blow away certain issues, particularly the so-called sensitive and controversial ones.
Mustafa K Anuar is joint coordinator of the citizens’ media initiative, Charter2000-Aliran.