The Star (22 November 2007) curiously carried a piece (“Media needs to be effective”) written by one of its columnists, M. Veera Pandiyan, who lamented the apparent dilemma faced by Malaysian journalists working in the mainstream media. These, he warned, were "indeed trying days for Malaysian journalists" – in reference to the “dogged criticisms” that were hurled against the mainstream media due to their questionable and often distorted reporting.
He recalled one of the first lessons a cadet journalist learns: “It’s not news if a dog bites a man. It’s only news if a man bites a dog.” In other words, an event or issue becomes newsworthy if it’s unusual or if it rarely happens. Another rule-of-thumb is that an issue or incident of a huge magnitude or implications is newsworthy. Thus, if we were to go by these criteria, the Bersih rally of 10 Nov 2007 should have made it to the front pages of the major newspapers because this public rally was both uncommon – at least in illiberal Malaysia – and had wide political implications. And yet, The Star and other mainstream papers chose to dump it into their inside pages with a naughty spin to boot.
These are indeed trying times for not only Malaysian journalists but also for truth-seekers among concerned Malaysians. But the dust from the mainstream media’s demonisation of the Bersih gathering had barely settled when The Star (23 November 2007) carried a story about the 25 November peaceful protest in Kuala Lumpur, organised by the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), with the mischievous headline, “Klang Valley Chokes up’. Underneath that was a little kicker: “Roadblocks to keep city clear of troublemakers.” Traffic in and around the city came to a grinding halt because of the massive police roadblocks, but The Star, along with other newspapers, has conveniently attributed the jams to the ‘troublemakers’ in the form of Hindraf.
Have The Star and other major newspapers learnt from the "mistakes" of the Bersih coverage? Apparently not. And this brings us to a vital point raised by editor Kee Thuan Chye in a Malaysiakini interview (“A culture of fearing the truth” – 22 November). He made the fine and yet important distinction between the mainstream media being cautious and being subservient. It is the kind of distinction that the bosses of the mainstream media must take heed – for if they choose the latter, the outcome would be ugly, appalling and disgraceful.
Chillingly, as Kee warned us in the interview, we are already living in a culture of fearing the truth. Needless to say, the mainstream media has played a role in nurturing such a culture of fear.