Friday 5 October 2012

Malaysiakini and the public domain

  • Josh Hong
  • 5:42PM Oct 5, 2012
Kudos to the Kuala Lumpur High Court, which granted a judicial review of Mkini Dotcom Sdn Bhd to quash the Home Ministry’s decision to reject its application for a permit to start a newspaper.

It has been a long time coming and the online news portal that I am honoured to be associated with is finally vindicated.

I still remember the days when I had Malaysiakini as homepage on my desktop. Some colleagues were rather uneasy; others were shocked. One of them asked me in a feeble voice: “The government says it is subversive. Is it really?” I replied by inviting her to read, but she just turned away.

It is now hard to imagine Malaysians once lived in a pervasive climate of fear as such that stifled the joy of reading news that truly mattered at the time. Mahathir Mohamad’s iron grip on the media was so powerful that to defy it would almost entail martyrdom!

But I will never forget it was Malaysiakini that first exposed the attempt by Sin Chew Jit Poh (now Sin Chew Daily) to airbrush the face of Anwar Ibrahim mysteriously from a group picture of BN leaders, giving the haughty Chinese daily its first taste of real competition, and the bad blood never goes away.

NONEMalaysiakini was also swift in reporting BN’s loss of Terengganu on the night of the 1999 general election while the mainsteam media were keeping the country in the dark. A year and a half later in April 2001, I learned - almost instantly - of the outrageous news of Hishamuddin Rais (whom I just hung out with two nights before) and Tian Chua being detained along with several others - under the notorious ISA, courtesy of Malaysiakini again.
In the days before the Facebook-mania and the popularisation of other social network tools, to debunk the myth that Malaysia could not afford cross-ethnic news reporting was a tall order. The fact that Malaysiakini managed to set the trend and give Barisan Nasional - Mahathir in particular - a run for their money is no small feat.

Every communication technology impacts governance and political processes, and the Malaysian landscape is being vastly altered now that the social media has gained a firm foothold in Malaysia’s body politic.

In the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, German philosopher Jürgen Habermas regards the flourishing of the coffeehouse culture in 18th century England as creating a public sphere which “mediates between society and stte, in which the public organises itself as the bearer of public opinion”.

In this public sphere, ordinary people would exchange information and opinions on various issues, from the prospects of a regime change down to the costs of a minister’s private wedding. In short, it is a domain in our social life in which public opinions can be formed, and we in this generation are truly fortunate to be able to witness the mushrooming of social media tools that presents a formidable challenge to the omnipotent ruling coalition.

For more than half a century, Umno and its cohorts have been dominating broadcast and print communications, while media ownership has become extremely concentrated, with the end result that only a handful of individuals linked to the ruling parties are ‘privileged’ enough to mould the public opinion of the entire populace.

Breaking the monopoly

Too bad, that the emergence of the online media has broken the monopoly usurped by the powers-that-be.

NONEWhat is most heartening in the epoch-breaking phenomenon is that Netizens are now taking a proactive role in challenging and even confronting the mainstream media as well as politicians from both sides of the political divide with facts and argument.

Just recently, Bernama was forced to admit one of its pictures depicting Najib Abdul Razak being swarmed by supporters in Pekan had been doctored.

And The Star, Chua Soi Lek’s mouthpiece, was caught with its pants down when one of its articles was plagiarised word for word from a foreign publication.

Three months ago, Sin Chew Daily was made to go through rounds of derision and mockery after a reader found to his horror that its editorials had been repeatedly plagiarized and reproduced from elsewhere.

Further back in 2005, some netizens detected in a column by Tay Tian Yan, Sin Chew’s arguably most ‘celebrated’ columnist and a deputy editor-in-chief, remarkably identical paragraphs that could have been ‘inspired’ by Farish Noor on Malaysiakini, but without acknowledgement.

The plagiarised contents concern how Indonesian protesters had exempted Siti Nurhaliza from their rage against Malaysia, as well as how the Malaysian songbird had managed to bridge the gap between the two countries with her image as a “nice, proper, well-dressed and well-mannered” girl.

The finding went largely unnoticed as FB was yet to make significant inroad into Malaysian society. Things would have been very different now but Tay’s credentials as a ‘senior’ and ‘experienced’ journalist has come under the most intense scrutiny by the Chinese-reading public in Malaysia, on FB, no less. Again, receiving an award as ‘the Best Chinese Journalist’ from Najib last month is just another attestation to Tay’s ‘achievements’.

To be fair, this unethical practice is not peculiar to a partly-free country like Malaysia. Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek and Jahann Hari of the UK’s Independent were both implicated in plagiarism.

Stringent test on journalistic ethics

All this only goes to show that, while the advent of new media technologies has been a blessing so far, it has also imposed a far more stringent test on journalistic ethics that any serious and earnest player must endeavor to live up to.

While I would like to congratulate Malaysiakini on its latest victory, but it is not the time to be triumphal yet because, as we all know, one swallow does not a summer make. The current regime may still fight back, as seen in its relentless pursuit of Suaram, Bersih and other social movements.

Furthermore, judging from the painful experience of the Oriental Daily, in which the youngest Chinese daily’s distribution channel is blocked, the first worry of Malaysiakini may not necessarily be the vengeful BN government, but the bullying and arrogant Sin Chew Daily should there be a Chinese print edition.

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