The crude, the bad and the ugly

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Mustafa K Anuar takes to task the mainstream media for its appallingly lopsided coverage of the general election campaign.

Photo credits: uppercaise
Photo credits: uppercaise

On 24 April 2013, the purported people’s paper ran a screaming headline on its front page: “Fights get uglier”. And rightly so, as recent incidents in Malaysia associated with the forthcoming general election have turned violent in various ways.

Like the people at The Star, peace-loving Malaysians are appalled and concerned about the rising occurrences of violence in our otherwise peaceful nation. The violence ranges from an explosion near a ceramah site to the torching of a car to the delivery of a dead chicken with a ‘threatening’ note.

This 13th nationwide contest must, and should, be about a contest of policies and ideas, if not ideals, between competing parties. That is why all right-thinking Malaysians must condemn in no uncertain terms violence being used to serve the narrow interests of certain quarters who have no qualms about inflicting pain in the body politic.

What’s equally worrying for concerned citizens of the country, which somehow escapes the attention and concern of most sections of the mainstream media, is the ugly and crude form of unfair and unethical journalism that is being practised by these media in the run-up to the imminent general election.

In particular, the mainstream media promote in an unfettered and relentless manner the political standing of the incumbent BN to the extent that truth and journalistic fairness and ethics are thrown out the editorial window – and the opposing parties, as a result, are either relegated to the inside pages or front-paged in the darkest light possible.

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The Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition is often characterised by the mainstream dailies, particularly the English- and Malay-language press, as a collective that is at the throat of one another. In other words, this coalition is depicted as a troubled alliance of disparate bands of politicians.

While it is true that there are still hiccups in this relatively recent political partnership called PR, the mainstream press tend to highlight and exaggerate the coalition’s ideological fault lines – to the point of giving the impression as if the BN of so many years old doesn’t experience inter-party conflicts and contradictions. And because most of these mainstream media do not respect the principle of the right of reply, most of the time PR’s politicians find themselves deprived of their right to defend themselves when politically attacked by their BN counterparts.

In fact, you get to know more about the ‘bad’ side of the PR than you would the policies and stand of BN on certain issues via this mainstream press.

The picture becomes even uglier when the mainstream press becomes a journalistic ally to the component parties of the BN that smear the collective image of the PR via their reporting of the politics of hate and fear. The Democratic Action Party (DAP), for instance, is often painted as a political party that is subservient to Pas so that the supposed humongous hudud would eventually be smuggled into the country’s body politic to the expected chagrin and fear of the non-Muslim community.

The mischievous and simplistic equation of vote for DAP = vote for Pas = vote for hudud, the daily mantra of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) party (the owner of The Star) is littered in the pages of The Star in various forms, stretching from straight reporting to columns and advertisements. DAP in particular finds it a herculean task to fight this deluge of ideological attacks especially when it faces difficulty in countering these accusations either through letters to the editor or advertisements.

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This brings us to the controversy over the attempt by DAP to place an advertisement to counter the MCA anti-hudud (and by extension, an ‘allergy’ towards Islam) attack. DAP leaders accused The Star of rejecting its application to place an ad; the newspaper’s management insisted that it was rejected because the ad, amongst other things, “had elements that could provoke sentiments of hate which could lead to a divisive society”. That’s rich coming from a paper that wilfully provides a platform for the politics of hate and fear in our society.

In an interview with its executive deputy chairman Vincent Lee on 3 May, The Star reported that Lee said that the daily had made “a conscious effort to provide coverage to both sides (of the political divide)” as a way of practising fair journalism. “We have allocated at least two pages of news for the opposition parties daily in our main pages, as well as in Metro.”

And as if not to be outdone by his critics, Lee implied that his paper respects differing points of view. Right.

This indeed needs a response: the credibility and reputation of a newspaper organisation, arising from a conscious practice of fair and ethical journalism, is not established on the assurance of its top boss. It is normally built on years of high standards of fearless and responsible journalism.

This apparent assurance sounds hollow when you start looking at yesterday’s copy of the daily, where the content of the national news mainly revolved around the MCA and the BN. There were, to be sure, two or three items on the PR. Compare that to the one whole page of a seemingly worried outgoing Johor Mentri Besar Ghani Othman, lamenting about his political contender (implying Lim Kit Siang) whose purported aggressive style of politicking has caused harm to the moderate ‘Johor way’ that he has supposedly built over the years.

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In other words, Kit Siang has been portrayed in this appeal to the people of Johor, the hitherto bastion of Umno Baru, as a politician who potentially could cause a rift between the ethnic groups in the states, namely the Malays and the Chinese. Would the daily, in the name of ethical journalism and fairness, provide a space for Kit Siang to respond and rebut?

Furthermore, in a more democratic society, dissenting voices do not require a quota of two or three pages. They get the fair amount of editorial space they rightfully deserve just as the ruling party gets its rightful portion.

A general election, such as the GE13, is a litmus test to any claim to fair and ethical journalism – at a time when the voter is to make his or her informed choice (to paraphrase today’s [4 May 2013] front-page headline of The Star).

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