A personal view of what makes an effective media council — Yiswaree Palansamy

MAY 17 — Just one month ago, a working group representing Malaysian publishers drafted a new law proposing a media council be established in our country, to regulate and oversee the media industry.

The link to the draft can be found here.

A couple weeks ago, meanwhile, in conjunction with World Press Freedom Day, a collaboration called the Journalists Alliance (JA), comprising mostly of journalists' unions and associations, uploaded a draft on the same subject matter seeking public feedback.

The link to the draft can be found here.

(For the purposes of this article, I will refer to them as the 1st Draft and 2nd Draft respectively.)

As a journalist myself, I cannot resist the urge to chime in and share my views on this very crucial topic.

Overall, the general concept of having a media council is certainly a step in the right direction towards media independence in our country.

The logic here is simple: If an independent body regulates the industry instead of the government, there will be less exploitation of the media, leading to less biased reporting and propaganda.

Nevertheless, as I scrolled through different drafts, several thoughts on issues that may potentially plague an otherwise noble idea came to mind.

Here are the five issues which must be addressed in order for a media council to function as intended:

The definition of ‘journalist’ or ‘media practitioner’ is too loose

The 1st Draft and 2nd Draft share a similarity where both have very relaxed definition of “journalist.”

Without going into a convoluted analysis on the terms used by the respective drafts, simply put, if a person decides to join a news organisation tomorrow, he or she would already be deemed as a “journalist” for the purposes of the proposed law.

As it stands, there are no mandatory requirements per se for a person to be hired as a journalist in a news organisation. This is vastly different from many other professions like doctors and lawyers which have a strict requirement of certain qualifications.

The rationale perhaps comes from the fact that such a practice has been serving us well since time immemorial. For many journalists without paper qualifications, experience has been the only one needed for excellence.

However, for the purposes of forming a media council, this would be an entirely different story altogether.

If the executive council (exco) members of a media council includes journalists, and anyone can be deemed a journalist under the law, then there will be a potential risk of “infiltration” by those who want to control the media industry.

Unfortunately, this scenario is far from just a what-if. It is an observation based on what is already happening in political parties. For example, politicians are usually eager to establish as many political branches as possible, sometimes by having family members and friends registered as proxies, simply so that when the time comes, they can gather the necessary votes to become exco members in their respective political parties.

These politicians can also adopt the same modus operandi and abuse the loose definition of journalist used in the drafts, by possibly flooding the council with irresponsible news aggregators, or even shady bloggers.

While I personally, absolutely abhor elitism, the definition of “journalist” must be stricter in order to avoid the profession being exploited with the same tactic that politicians use in their own turf.

This issue can be resolved if the term “journalist” is only used on those who have worked for at least three years in the media industry. A separate respectful term can be used to distinguish those who have worked for less than three years, so that they will not be able to vote for or to be voted into the media council.

The definition of ‘news agencies’ is also too loose

Similar to the first point, when the definition of what constitutes a "news agency" is too relaxed, vehicle companies can easily be used to “infiltrate” the media council.

Since there are exco seats allocated specifically for publishers and editors in the media council, it is once again not difficult to imagine that there will be those who may want to exploit the system.

Needless to say, the solution would also be similar. All it needs is for there to be a minimum amount of years for a news agency to operate before the publishers and editors of the news agency are allowed to vote for, or to be voted into the media council.

Limited or no representation of journalists in the media council

The 1st Draft proposed that only four exco seats be allocated to journalists, as opposed to 12 seats for publishers and owners of news agencies.

The 2nd Draft did not even allocate a single exco seat to journalists.

While it may seem like I have a vested interest here, as I belong to this category myself, I do believe that a fairer representation of journalists in the media council is necessary for it to be more grounded and practical.

For example, only a journalist who works on the ground is able to truly understand the circumstances and the working environment of the profession. If a journalist were to face an inquiry for censure due to a complaint, it is imperative that the council hearing him or her has a fair representation of his or her peers, in order for due process to be done.

In short, journalists who make up most part of the media industry, should have more voices heard in the media council.

The chairman has too much power

One of the few powers that are proposed in both drafts is the power to censure.

If the media council receives a complaint, it can hold an inquiry to provide the person being complained against, an opportunity to be heard. After the inquiry, the media council may decide to exercise the power to censure the person if it finds the complaint to be valid.

However, the chairman has the power to not take cognisance of the complaint at all, if, in his opinion, there are no sufficient grounds for the complaint.

This is definitely a step back for media independence, since one person in the media council is able to decide what should or should not be in the news. As clichéd as it may be, the universal truth is that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The proviso that empowers the chairman this power should be removed entirely so that it is held collectively and accountably by all the exco members of the media council.

The lack of power

Last but certainly not the least, apart from the power to censure, the media council would lack any other powers to compel anyone in the media industry to basically do anything.

For example, if a news agency is deemed by the said council to have breached a code of conduct in an article, it may only issue a public statement to request the news agency take down the article. If the news agency chooses to ignore the notice or any censure issued by the council, it will not face any legal repercussions whatsoever.

If someone wants to compel the news agency to take down the article, the traditional legal recourse by way of a lawsuit has to be resorted to.

This is a problem faced by many media councils around the world, including the Australian Press Council (APC).

The APC, however, approaches this problem by doing its best in being prominently reliable to the public. The power to censure only carries weight if the public believes in the public statements made by the APC. Ultimately, the power to affect a news agency’s readership is not one that should be underestimated.

While the APC has been established since 1976 and has a decent following, it may take a while for Malaysia’s proposed media council to establish such prestige. However, there are ways to at least ensure a good start to prominence.

For example, a good start can be by paying extra attention to the selection of the founding exco members, especially the chairman, who will be the face of the proposed council.

If the founding members are well selected, the power to censure which may seem trivial on paper to some, may actually be a very powerful tool in the right hands.

Finally, notwithstanding all the issues highlighted, I am fully in support of having a media council. With our current political climate, I believe this is the most appropriate solution to better media independence.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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