Media extremism 101

NOV 3 — Malaysia’s political arena serves as a rich repository of certain ideas and phenomena that otherwise rarely capture the imagination of the ordinary people. 

Not too long ago, for instance, Malaysians bore witness to a bizarre fear that engulfed — and still haunts — certain sections of our society, particularly with the emergence of the Bersih movement. It’s called Xanthophobia, the fear of the colour yellow which has given rise to various kinds of knee-jerk and even puerile reactions within our society. 

And recently, a seemingly new concept was bandied about by no less than PAS political leader Abdul Hadi Awang, i.e. “media extremism”, which he felt could cause disharmony in the country. This came about after his meeting with Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak. 

An inkling of what he meant by this can be found in the words he reportedly expressed: false news, slander and certain information that is unverified by social media users. I’d like to take this opportunity to venture into Hadi’s notion of “media extremism.” 

For starters, it is clearly “media extremism” if a media organisation provides a platform only for one particular party in a conflict while denying the voice of the other. 

For instance, in the current tension between the Kelantan state government and the Orang Asli in Gua Musang, any media coverage would be  deemed unfair and unbalanced if the voice of the latter, who are fighting against logging activities and encroachment of their native customary land, is completely or even partially denied. And it would be unconscionable if the media concerned totally suppressed this issue. 

It’s equally bad if the state government decides to ban journalists from covering this conflict. Burying one's head in the sand may not help the problem go away. If anything, the unhappiness may fester over time and develop into something that might not be palatable for both sides while the media is made to abandon its journalistic responsibility. 

Similarly, it is “media extremism” if certain sections of the media are prohibited from covering official functions of the government. For, over a period of time the banned media may unwittingly develop an image of being anti-government simply because they are denied the opportunity to cover government events. It invariably prevents the media concerned from practising fair and responsible journalism. 

The Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) in many ways hampers the emergence of media diversity in our society as it empowers the Home Minister with the discretion to decide on who gets publishing permits. This applies particularly to the dailies. 

Without such diversity, you get news published by media outlets “friendly” to the powers-that-be and which caters only to the interests and concerns of certain sections of the population. 

This lopsidedness would go a long way towards forging “media extremism." The disadvantaged and the marginalised are left to fend for themselves. 

Currently, the elephant in the room — the biggest financial scandal the country has ever seen — has been religiously avoided largely by the mainstream media. This is due to political obeisance of certain media operatives, political pressure and the full weight of the Official Secrets Act (OSA) and Sedition Act. It is a betrayal of the media’s social responsibility. 

This situation has brought about rumour-mongering to a certain extent and also social media users resorting to sources of information from outside the country, such as the Wall Street Journal and the indefatigable Sarawak Report. Hadi and his ilk should not easily dismiss this phenomenon as mere foreign “media extremism” that could purportedly harm the country. 

There is no denying that there are quarters in society who have abused the freedom made available by the Internet and social media. However, it would be seen as a backdoor, cunning or “extreme” endeavour if the government were to introduce a PPPA-like law by enforcing, say, the registration of blogs and news portals. This problem could be dealt with via existing laws such as defamation law. 

If it is also implied in the meeting that there is the danger of news fabrication especially by foreign media about Islam in Malaysia, then there is cause for concern. For, at one level, false news or distortion about certain groups of Muslims can raise the Islamophobia level a few notches. 

But at the same time, one also has to critically examine particular cases involving the actions and public expressions of certain Muslim individuals and groups that easily invite media attention and subsequent coverage. 

An example of such a case is the recent brouhaha over the term “hotdogs." The fact that a few food establishments have been hounded by the religious authorities over this matter easily becomes newsworthy in the country as well as globally. 

This is apart from the recent news about the provision of an app by a religious authority to enable members of the general public to swiftly report cases of “close proximity” (aka khalwat) and other moral issues. We haven’t even started here yet on the story about sex on a camel’s back. 

To those who are not familiar with the world of news reporting, apart from covering issues and incidents of political, social and economic importance and sports, journalists also are trained to keep an eye on things that are considered uncanny, ridiculous and brainless as well. 

On the surface, this kind of reporting (such as the renaming of hotdogs) may look mischievous, frivolous and, to borrow Hadi’s term, “extremist”, but it certainly is newsworthy and the duty of the media to report it. 

Finally, we hope that Hadi managed to remind Salleh Said Keruak at the meeting of the cardinal sin of certain media pandering to defamation (fitnah) and false news reporting which, according to Hadi, constitutes “media extremism." 

If we care to look back at the country’s history, the mainstream media that are closely aligned to the ruling BN coalition were involved in distorting political reality during the campaign period of general elections in particular the 1990 general election. 

Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, then leader of the opposition Gagasan Rakyat, visited Sabah on October 18, 1990 where he met the Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) leader Joseph Pairin Kitingan, and wore a Kadazan headgear, Sigah, that was presented to him by Pairin whose party had indicated it might want to leave BN and join the opposition. 

The Sigah was then made out to have a “Christian cross” by the mainstream media in an attempt to throw doubt regarding Razaleigh’s “Malay commitment” and Islamic religiosity. 

The Utusan Malaysia on October 19, 1990, for example, ran a front-page headline, “Orang ramai marah Razaleigh pakai tengkolok bersalib” (The general public is furious over Razaleigh wearing a headgear with a cross). The political fortunes of the opposition were immediately reversed after this incident. 

Fast forward. Utusan Malaysia is reportedly operating excruciatingly under the weight of defamation damages, among other things, that it incurred over the years. This includes the recent settlement of Anwar’s libel suit pertaining to the daily’s allegation that Anwar was linked to the incursion in Lahad Datu, Sabah. 

Another newspaper closely aligned to the BN, New Straits Times, also found itself entangled in defamation. It falsely reported on September 21, 2012 that Bersih 2.0, SUARAM, Centre for Independent Journalism and Merdeka Center received large sum of money from foreign sources to destabilise or overthrow the Malaysian government via illegal means. 

And quite recently, PAS reportedly complained about TV3 allegedly misrepresenting Hadi Awang on October 18, 2016 as a politician who supported the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) under its reportage title “GST: Terbukti Berkesan — Presiden PAS” (GST: Proven Effective — PAS President). 

Such “media extremism” is indeed detrimental to professional journalism as well as the country’s democracy and wellbeing. 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.