MAY 17 — Over the weekend, a picture of the media jostling for photographs and videos of the first Friday prayers at the National Mosque since the start of the lockdown elicited some snide comments from the public.
Many criticised the reporters and photographers for not adhering to social distancing.
A viral text message sarcastically suggested that if another wave of Covid-19 infection originates from the group, it should be called the “reporter cluster” — subtly blaming the media for the public backlash against several clusters that had their roots in Islamic events.
There are many things to dissect from this incident.
First of all is the denial by certain quarters that any mass gathering, even religious events, may lead to the spread of Covid-19.
This was the main reason the movement control order (MCO) was imposed and all religious gatherings banned, until this recent baffling decision to allow restricted congregational prayers well before the conditional MCO (CMCO) ends on June 9.
Second, many sometimes forget that the media are front-liners as well. For doing the job of keeping the public informed, many reporters are on the ground day after day... risking being infected.
Third, some government bodies think very little about the welfare of the media, even when they themselves benefit from the coverage.
In this case, the coverage of the first Friday prayers in weeks at the National Mosque (administered by federal Islamic authority Jakim) would inform the public about the procedures behind the reopening of some mosques in the “green zones” in the Federal Territories, and the standard operating procedures (SOPs) while hosting such prayers.
And yet, those who covered the event said they were cordoned off to a tiny area in the massive mosque, and were not allowed to position themselves to take photographs from other areas. In a public building. Which would automatically have solved the requirement of social distancing.
It is certainly not correct to accuse the media of being ignorant of the “new normal” in the time of Covid-19. Especially not when they are the ones writing, reporting and documenting how the country and Putrajaya is responding to the pandemic every day.
In the early days of the outbreak, it was journalists who worried about getting infected when covering high-risk public areas such as airports or government offices.
The media, especially photographers, risk their safety and health covering areas placed under the enhanced MCO (EMCO), sometimes in the wee hours of the morning when the police roll out the barbed wires to close those areas off.
One would be hard-pressed to find any members of the media who do not wear facial masks while on duty. And yet for the first few weeks of the pandemic, media outlets were struggling to find those and hand sanitisers for their staff. Many had to rely on donations afterwards.
Listening to Health Director-General Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah almost every day has drummed the importance of staying at home, practising social distancing, and keeping optimal hygiene level into their heads.
In short, if one is trying to find someone who is slacking when it comes to the new normal, it would likely not be within the media fraternity.
And yet, this has been the excuse used time and time again during this pandemic to deny media access to government events, especially if you are not one of the designated “official media”: state news agency Bernama and state broadcaster RTM.
During the shambolic Melaka assembly sitting last week, only “official media” got to witness the havoc first-hand. Other media outlets were banned. The sitting had ended with a change of Speaker friendly to Perikatan Nasional.
It was the same thing for the Perak assembly, which also saw a commotion against the Speaker, who was also replaced after he resigned.
Tomorrow, the one-day sitting of Dewan Rakyat will also be restricted to “official media”, who have since been tested for Covid-19 — showing that it is more than possible to allow other media to cover it as well.
But then again, as the already short sitting would now end immediately after the Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s address without any debates, even as many were already tested for Covid-19 — according to Kuantan MP Fuziah Salleh, MPs from other states received one-week accommodation just for this — any media reporting would perhaps be moot.
As media academic V. Gayathry said in a Twitter post, the Agong may as well deliver his address online from the palace, or provide the text of his speech to the media.
But even if there are no debates, a typical Parliament sitting would also include press conferences and door-stops. There will be none of this tomorrow.
Already, most media are barred from covering Senior Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s daily briefings which touch on many issues that need public scrutiny — from the implementation of the MCO, the many rules that seem not to apply to everyone equally, the use of security forces, and the mistreatment of minority and repressed communities during this pandemic.
All these issues need questioning, and most importantly need replying by Ismail. Instead, other media had to resort to reaching out to Ismail’s aide personally, or asking for favours from friends who are allowed in.
These issues extend to the raids by authorities against undocumented migrants, where the media were expressly forbidden from documenting “by orders from above.”
When the media managed to capture some photos on Thursday (by accident, really), the stories told themselves — of children being carted off to detention centres, of women crying, of men holding on for dear life in more ways than one.
Holding the government accountable and ensuring the pandemic is contained need not be mutually exclusive.
There are many ways to do this: Online interactive conferences, adequate reporting space, direct access to government officials, among others. As broadcast journalist Melisa Idris succinctly said in her message on World Press Freedom Day earlier this month: “Government communications cannot be just one-way.”
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.