KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 11 — While the independent media has the duty to hold those in power accountable, it must also refrain from acting as the voice of the opposition, a former journalist with The Washington Post advised Malaysian journalists.
John Dinges — an esteemed former correspondent with the US daily as well as with Time magazine who had spent most of his earlier days as a reporter in Latin America during its repressive period in the 70s and 80s — said impartial reporting is the hallmark of a genuinely independent media.
Journalists have to constantly remind themselves that they have a duty to the people, Dinges added, while cautioning them that a media that is seen as too close to the opposition risks losing credibility.
“Journalists have to be more careful about the accuracy and precision of their reporting because you know you're being scrutinised and you need to be the ones that people can trust,” the former reporter told Malay Mail Online in a brief interview here yesterday.
“So if all the journalists do is identify with the opposition, and scream and holler to say we're victims...if you raise your journalism to the level of rhetoric, you've become a political actor,” he added.
Dinges, now a journalism professor at Columbia University in the US where he also runs a radio station, was here to give a talk at the Cooler Lumpur Festival in Publika, where he shared much of his experience as a foreign correspondent in Chile under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.
Dinges spoke to Malay Mail Online briefly before he delivered a talk on “Journalism in Service of Democracy.”
Asked what he felt was needed for journalism in Malaysia to progress, Dinges said reporters needed to be brave to get the truth out.
“Keep in mind that you're serving the people, you're serving democracy and you're not serving yourself and that we have a profession that is a vital health of a society.
“So be brave. Be courageous. Don't just worry about your job,” he said.
Dinges was among the few American reporters based in Latin America in the 70s. He helped uncover truths about the brutality of military regimes despite working under oppressive conditions.
His reports, along with other foreign reporters at the time, helped reveal the mass killings of dissidents by the military juntas of Chile and Argentina, and later became important documents that helped families of victims seek reparations and justice.
The Pinochet military government was said to have murdered and tortured more than 3,000 people and displaced a few hundred thousand more from 1973 to 1990, making it one of the most brutal regimes in modern history.
Dinges said Pinochet was evidently US-backed, which was why he and some of his colleagues were allowed to stay in the South American country even after the 1973 coup against the elected government of popular socialist leader Salvador Allende.
The former Time and The Washington Post correspondent said the situation forced him and others to work under tight supervision and restrictions, but that did not stop him from trying to report the truth.
He said Malaysian journalists from independent media could also do the same and find ways to maneuver through restrictions, like putting out an accurate report that’s otherwise blacked out by the mainstream media.
“Just report the facts...give the people a reflection of the truth in your medium that is different from what’s coming out from the government.”