Wednesday 1 June 2011

Uncommon Sense with Wong Chin Huat: Government and the media

THE Barisan Nasional (BN) government is hardly an exemplary proponent of press freedom. Its wide ownership and control of much of the Malaysian press probably contributed to Malaysia’s “not free”* rating in a recent survey by Freedom House, a global press watchdog. Malaysia placed 143 out of 196 in Freedom House’s press freedom index, sharing the spot with Madagascar and Angola.

But how much better would a Pakatan Rakyat (PR) government fare in this area? Recent actions such as the Penang government’s ban on Utusan Malaysia from covering the state assembly sitting could signal a worrying trend for press freedom. On the other hand, how and when does press freedom apply to irresponsible media?

The Nut Graph asks political scientist and journalism lecturer Wong Chin Huat for his views, and what role, if any, the government should play in regulating the press.

TNG: What are your views on the Penang government’s ban on Utusan Malaysia from covering the next state assembly sitting? Isn’t this a hindrance to press freedom in Malaysia? 

I am taking a different view from what I would normally say. In principle, I would defend any media against state restriction. As defined by Max Weber, the state fundamentally operates on the threat of violence, as it has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. The media should therefore promote self-governance and a sense of community, and act as a check on the state. Hence, it is a battle of violence versus reason.
However, in Utusan‘s case I would ask two questions. Firstly, is Utusan part of the media or part of the state? And secondly, does the Penang government’s sanction curb media freedom in general?

To answer the first question, I am inclined to see Utusan as part of the state rather than the media. This is mainly due to the impunity it enjoys for its wrongdoings. I’m not advocating for Utusan to be closed down or for its editor to be detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA). But no action is taken against the paper for its false reporting or for inciting hatred, either. Since I see Utusan as part of the state, anything restricting the use of the state’s power – including their power to control people’s minds – is good. So, I am happy to see Utusan sanctioned.

Secondly, would such sanction by a [state government] curb media freedom in general? Are we welcoming one evil to check another and make that evil more powerful than necessary?

To answer this, we should differentiate social sanctions from legal sanctions. Legal sanctions such as ISA arrests or revocation of publication permits involve the use of state violence. Social sanctions involve voluntary actions on the part of concerned parties. It can take different forms such as condemnation, moral persuasion, and disengagement such as boycotts. Barring Utusan is a social sanction through disengagement which sends the message, “We don’t want to have anything to do with you.”

However, the questions that remain are: can a state institution such as the Penang government disengage certain media organisations without hurting the public’s right to know? How do we know this is not driven by partisanship? Is there any objective test or criteria by which media should cease to be treated as media? Is there enough diversity among the engaged media?

(Illustration by Nick Choo)
(Illustration by Nick Choo)

This isn’t the first time a PR government has banned a newspaper from covering their proceedings. It happened with the New Straits Times in Penang and several news organisations in Kedah. The PR has also not included the repeal of the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) in their 100-day reform plan. Given the PR’s track record so far, would the state of press freedom be any different under a PR government compared with a BN government?

This is a legitimate question. The PR’s commitment to press freedom is in fact quite dubious. Selangor has passed their Freedom of Information Enactment after three years in power, while Penang’s one is going to take longer. Nothing is happening in Kedah or Kelantan, which has been under PAS for 21 years.
The PR at federal level seemingly fails to appreciate the urgency of media law reform. Its 100-day plan does not even include the setting up of a parliamentary select committee tasked for that. So, the PR cannot complain if their defensive action against Utusan is interpreted as a display of authoritarianism even before coming into power.

It remains to be seen whether the state of press freedom will improve under a PR government. Civil society should demand the suspension of the PPPA as a key promise from a new PR government. Removing such legal sanctions would be the real test of the PR’s commitment to press freedom.

Reports of racial and religious sentiments being played up have become common, such as a recent Malaysian Insider report citing certain “Islamic leaders” who said the government had been “too gracious” to non-Muslims. How should a responsible media, including the new media, report on these issues? What can they do to help, rather than hinder, better relations between Malaysian communities? 

The guarantee of intercommunal harmony lies not in the absence of exclusivist views, but in the presence of an inclusive middle ground. We should therefore not be overly worried with statements “belittling” or “marginalising” other communities. If society is mature, there will be enough right-thinking people to shun exclusivists. What we should really worry about is the incitement of violence, which must be punished even if it is in support of a good cause, say, elimination of racism.

(Wiki commons)
(Wiki commons)

A responsible media should report such news [using the philosophical concept of] “the veil of ignorance“. It should encourage its readers to ask the question: Would I like this outcome if I woke up tomorrow and found myself part of that other community? At the end of the day, we act selfishly because we believe that outcomes follow intentions. If we are willing to concede that we may change our position with the other, we will all want fairness.

How do you cut an apple into two and divide it between two persons fairly without the aid of scientific instruments? My favourite answer is, let one person cut the apple and let the other person choose which half to take. If our media can present ethno-religious conflicts from diverse viewpoints to enable readers to think, “What if we were them?”, we don’t have to worry about conflicts occurring.

Following Utusan‘s “Christian state” reports based on unsubstantiated blog postings, Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein called a meeting of chief editors to offer advice on reporting of “sensitive issues”. Should the government be involved in fostering better ethical practices within the media, even with the best of intentions? If so, how far should it go? If not, how then can the media be monitored effectively to curb misleading reports of this nature?

The state’s sole purpose and function in regulating social order should be to eliminate and prevent violence. If they can ensure that anyone and everyone who employs or threatens unlawful violence against others will be punished, half of the problems in this country would be solved.

Because the state has a monopoly on the use of legitimate violence, it must be checked by the media. If the media has to be advised by politicians, there is simply no check and balance.

And it’s a joke that Hishammuddin, who raised the keris in the 2006 and 2007 Umno general assemblies and even defended the cow-head thugs, wants to offer advice to editors. It’s like gangsters preaching morality.

If violence is completely intolerable in our society, then we have to learn to settle our conflicts and scores in a civilised manner. Misconduct of the media would be checked by public opinion, unless we don’t have a thinking public and a reflective media industry.

Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade.

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