JAN 4, 2004 SUN

All steamed up over Malaysia Voyeur TV

Show that exposes seamy side draws a million viewers but gets flak for crude language

By Reme Ahmad

HIDDEN cameras show young people having sex in public parks, and sniffing glue. Groups of hungry punks dig through rubbish cans in search of food. Prostitutes walk the streets.
It is all happening in Malaysia, and millions of viewers are watching such activities. No, it is no voyeur website but a brutally frank current affairs programme on Malaysian television.
Produced by private station Natseven TV, better known as ntv7, the 15-month-old Edisi Siasat (Investigative Edition) programme has been praised for exposing the country's dark side.
But it is also drawing flak for pandering to the voyeuristic tastes of viewers and for the use of 'rude' language.
Some Malaysians want the government to get the station to tone down the show's focus on sex.
The negative response does not upset senior producer Zainal Rashid Ahmad. Provoking viewers was what Edisi Siasat set out to do in the first place, said Mr Zainal of the half-hour programme which airs at 8.30pm on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays.
'This is done on purpose as in past decades, young people have stopped watching news,' he said. 'We understand TV culture and what will get them to watch the news.'
And they are spot-on. With a viewership of a million for each of its shows, even though it is shown only in the Klang Valley, the programme is ntv7's most popular programme, second only to reality series Survivor, Mr Zainal said.
While private television channel TV3 still leads in the ratings battle, its news and other shows have been criticised for leaning too much on doe-eyed hosts and good-looking newscasters to draw viewers.
Mr Zainal, 36, said Edisi Siasat is trying to change that too.
'People should see what is being reported, not who is reporting it,' he said.
Edisi Siasat tends to focus on 'wayward' young people having sex in public, racing motorcycles illegally and doing drugs. Their faces are electronically masked but their actions are obvious.
No subject seems taboo. Its six broadcast journalists have hit the toughest streets in search of prostitutes, gay men and lesbians, and even filed a report on incest.
The social problems they tackle are not new to Malaysia, but ntv7's in-your-face reporting has given them new prominence.
Beyond the sensational stories, the programme draws even more fire for the strong language the journalists and presenters use.
Words such as kurang ajar (ill- bred), jalang (slut), haprak (idiot) and keparat (heathen) liberally pepper a typical show.
Mr Justin Sethu wrote to the New Straits Times on New Year's Day to complain.
'Words such as keparat and kurang ajar used by the show's host (on a show featuring illegal racing) are crude and lack finesse,' he said.
Edisi Siasat's reporting has also been criticised. Some viewers feel it is one-sided.
Malacca Chief Minister Mohd Ali Rustam in September accused the show of 'incorrect' and 'one-sided' reporting for portraying the Malacca capital as a haven for gays and prostitution, and for accusing the state government of not helping the poor.
In the Internet edition of the state government's bulletin, Melaka Minggu Ini (Malacca This Week), he was reported as saying: 'The authorities such as the police, the state religious department and the Malacca City Hall always carry out enforcement work to stop these sinful and immoral activities.'
Indeed, the television news programme focuses on problems which have existed for a long time but are ignored by the mainstream media in Malaysia.
Edisi Siasat has simply brought them into living rooms in the country, a move that is making some officials uncomfortable.
The reaction of some viewers to the show has been positive.
After programmes focusing on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual (GLBT) issues were aired, a group of Malaysians wrote in to the station.
'It is sad that people fail to realise the problem is not that GLBT individuals are different, but that some people show their blatant prejudice and hate for them,' they said.
But the station is not without its problems. Many of the journalists have taken much verbal abuse and threats from those featured in the show.
The station has also been sued. A rice trader in Kelantan, Madam Hawa Ahmad, is asking for RM24 million (S$10.7 million) in damages for a show that she said made 'false claims' when it accused her of being part of a 'syndicate of five robbers' who smuggled rice from Thailand.
Mr Zainal, a literature graduate and a leader of the Young Writers of Malaysia group who is well aware of the power of words, said it is all part of the job.
'This is not sensational reporting. We don't focus on sex,' he said. 'We want these things to come out for people to discuss. I guess seeing what is happening in the country is a cultural shock for some people.'

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"