Messing with the messenger

OCT 19 — The assault on journalists covering the Bersih convoy in Kuala Selangor last weekend by the red-shirted mob constitutes a dangerous form of intimidation as well as a stab at media freedom. 

For, this physical attack obviously obstructs the freedom of journalists to perform their duty to report incidents that unfold before their very eyes — although hooliganism of various sorts can also be taken in the journalists’ stride as it can be deemed newsworthy as well. In other words, these messengers should not be threatened in any way in their line of duty. 

As it is, the media in Malaysia has already been shackled by the State through various means, political, legal and commercial. A physical harassment is an added obstacle that the journalists can do without. 

This form of brute aggression also has other serious implications. For one, such a violent incident that involves Bersih supporters as well as journalists can be – if it occurs frequently over a period of time — conveniently associated with the Bersih movement in a negative way. 

With a sleight of hand, Bersih would be made synonymous with violence and breakdown of law and order, and therefore — if we push this argument to its logical conclusion — should be opposed and condemned categorically by the morally upright and, lo and behold, by most of the State apparatus. It’s the very ingredient required in the demonisation of the Bersih movement. 

Another implication is that this physical violence would have the effect of diverting public attention away from the very objectives of Bersih having the convoy cross the nation and the November 19 rally in Kuala Lumpur, i.e. basically to call for clean and fair election, good governance, importance of dissent, etc. 

Much of the media attention would instead be given to the scuffles between the engaging parties and the ensuing injury. Not that the hurt, verbal and physical, caused to the journalists (and also the Bersih supporters) in this particular incident is of secondary importance. But what is also vital to note is that it’s likely that narratives and imageries of physical disturbances would take precedence over those of peaceful persuasion of Bersih’s for they often supposedly make good copy. 

The use of physical harassment by certain groups in our society — and the apparent acquiescence of the political leadership — suggests an anti-democratic stance and also anti-intellectual inclination, which is an antithesis to the political establishment’s supposed aspiration of becoming a progressive and industrialised nation by 2020. 

Worse, this type of violent intimidation, if left unchecked, could very well lead us to a slippery slope — as exemplified by an extreme form of intimidation, in particular the death threats a la Islamic State that were issued recently against Bersih 2.0 chairman Maria Chin, her children, former Bersih co-chairman Ambiga Sreenevasan and Bersih secretariat manager Mandeep Singh. 

If reminding is needed, peaceful protest, dialogue, debate and discussion as opposed to violent intimidation and harassment are essential in a functioning democracy. The power of persuasion should prevail over the flaunting of brawn if we are to develop and deepen an intellectual tradition in our society. 

In so far as the media are concerned, competing parties are, or should be, given equal platforms to present their arguments and ideas, while an aggrieved party is accorded a right of reply because such a space is integral to democratic tradition. 

As alluded to above, this aggressive incident is also symptomatic of our political culture where the powers-that-be have the relentless stamina and tendency to impose censorship or ban things that are perceived to be detrimental to their collective interests — which are often couched in the language of “national interest.” 

The State’s desire to manage and control information in society via various laws of the land, such as the Sedition Act and Official Secrets Act (OSA), often makes a victim out of the messenger, i.e. the journalist, and sometimes this reaches a ludicrous level. 

For instance, in September 2008, Sin Chew reporter Tan Hoon Cheng was arrested in Penang for 16 hours under the now-defunct Internal Security Act (ISA) after she duly reported a disparaging remark made by former Bukit Bendera Umno Baru Division chief Ahmad Ismail about the Chinese community. 

Then Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar claimed that Tan was detained “for her own good” after the police apparently received information that her life was in jeopardy. Surely round-the-clock police protection for Tan that should last for more than 16 hours would suffice without having to resort to the draconian ISA. It takes a big leap of imagination to buy into his purported justification. 

Similarly in September 2014, Malaysiakini reporter Susan Loone was arrested under the Sedition Act for having reported what was said by Penang Executive Councillor Phee Boon Poh regarding the condition of his police custody, which was then considered seditious by the authorities. 

Like the physical intimidation of the red-shirted group who demanded, among other things, the deletion of a video recording by a Star reporter, the use of certain laws by the State against journalists has the similar effect of instilling fear among journalists in performing their duty in a responsible and fair manner. It’s censorship in its various manifestations. 

The arrests of these journalists are then made an example — directly or otherwise — for the rest of the journalistic fraternity so that they’d employ self-censorship in their reportage. Self-censorship would lessen the need for the State to be highly visible in its attempt to exercise intervention in the management and control of the media. 

Indeed, the messenger has a vital role to play as far as freedom of information and expression goes. Shooting him/her, figuratively speaking, would do a disservice to our democracy. 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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