Sunday December 30, 2001

When The Sun goes marchin’ in

By Mustafa K Anuar

In the wake of the barbaric Sept 11 attacks on the United States, a front-page report by The Sun on Christmas day claiming that there was a heinous plot to assassinate Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, understandably evoked deep concern, or at the very least, created some interest, among Malaysians.
This supposed ‘scoop’ of impending murders might not have necessarily been easily brushed aside by some Malaysians and also foreigners, especially when it somewhat fitted in with the constant reminding by the Malaysian government of ‘certain groups’ out to destabilise the country, particularly those Muslim ‘extremists’ and ‘fundamentalists’ out there. (Are we still baffled by the inclination of certain Western countries to perceive Malaysia as a ‘problematic’ Islamic nation?)
But, as it turned out, the assassination report was later declared by the daily itself to be ‘baseless’ and The Sun swiftly offered on Dec 27 a front-page public apology in particular to the prime minister and his deputy over what seems to be a colossal error. The executive director and editor-in-chief of the Sun Media Corporation Sdn Bhd, the publisher of The Sun, H’ng Hung Yong, resigned immediately; so did the paper’s editor, Andy Ng.
If it’s true that such journalistic callousness was by and large driven by the notion of profiting from sensationalism, as the pro-establishment and rival New Straits Times (NST) in its Dec 27 editorial seemed to suggest, then the tabloid deserves the criticisms it received. If we need reminding, journalistic ethics shouldn’t be sacrificed on the altar of profits. As background information, there seems to be stiff competition among the mainstream English language newspapers, particularly those that are presently trailing behind The Star in terms of circulation.
The media, given that they are run by ordinary mortals and especially those who have to meet punishing deadlines, are vulnerable to making unintentional mistakes. That is why they need to exercise care and judiciousness as far as possible. Some blunders made by the media could affect the country as a whole, especially if they involve high-ranking politicians. In other cases, such errors could affect one’s professional, business or corporate integrity, and also personal dignity.
Quite recently, malaysiakini too offered an apology over a misreporting it committed as regards its interview with Parti Rakyat Malaysia president Dr Syed Husin Ali. The reporter concerned resigned subsequently. To be sure, the NST dutifully notified its readers on Dec 23 through a news item, headlined ‘Uphold integrity, DAP tells Malaysiakini’, that highlighted the complaints made by DAP chairperson Lim Kit Siang and PRM’s Syed Husin against the news portal. Malaysiakini, however, stood by its reporting concerning Lim and the DAP.
Ethics, and social and corporate responsibility demand that the media concerned take immediate steps to clean up their act and, at the very least, make a public apology not only to ruling politicians and well-endowed business people, but also the ordinary people and individuals who had been in the corridors of powers. In other words, the media shouldn’t be selective when offering apologies after inaccuracies are made and hardship and embarrassment are inflicted on the people concerned.
If, in the midst of this Sun controversy, there are certain mainstream newspapers (and perhaps TV stations) that wear certain smugness on their sleeves, then it is advisable that they themselves exercise self-examination and self-restraint. This is because these media, most of which are government-owned or -influenced, shouldn’t even pretend to occupy the moral high ground given their misdemeanors of recent past.
An instance of high-degree sensationalism that prevailed not too long ago was the media display and replay of the semen-smeared mattress that was alleged to have been used by former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim during his alleged sexual encounters.
Unfounded report of assassination plots is dangerous, and so is character assassination that certain media organisations helped to peddle and perpetuate especially during election campaign period. Such journalistic sins were committed particularly during general elections by the mainstream media, smearing the political integrity of certain leaders of the opposition. In many cases, these were ‘mistakes’ that were quite intentional in nature, designed to give the ruling politicians an unfair but comfortable edge over their competitors.
What’s even worse, most of these mainstream media not only refused maligned opposition leaders concerned the space to respond to certain allegations, but also chose not to say sorry for certain journalistic oversight. A sense of fairness and justice, particularly when it involves people outside of the government circle, appears to be in short supply in the media industry.
Apart from reasons of ethics and responsibility, the media as a whole should also avoid making slip-ups, especially doing sensationalist reporting, so as to avoid giving the powers that be a golden opportunity and convenient excuse to further muzzle the media and curb press freedom and civil liberties - all in the name of ‘national security’ and ‘national interest’.
This could take the form of, say, a temporary or indefinite suspension of the publication concerned; an indirect political pressure; or a radical restructuring of the corporate management and/or editorial board that would enable it to have, as a consequence, a firmer grip on the publication’s editorial independence.
An inclination of this nature is not, by the way, the preserve of certain governments in the South; ruling elites in the North, too, are not averse to such an action as exemplified in the current ‘war against terrorism’. Certain mainstream newspapers and TV stations were ‘advised’ by government officials in the industrialised world not to cover certain stories in a certain fashion pertaining to the US aerial attacks on Afghanistan. Or, for that matter, the efforts of certain Western governments to influence the mainstream reportage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This is, of course, not to suggest that two wrongs make a right.
In a world that is particularly besieged by terror and conflicts, press freedom is a precious item that must be guarded jealously by the media people, human rights activists, and other concerned citizens.

MUSTAFA K ANUAR teaches communication studies. In his spare time, he reads back issues of Beano and a few of Malaysia's mainstream newspapers.