Press Freedom – A Myth or Reality?

By Fathol Zaman Bukhari

The right to freedom of expression is enshrined under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To mark this significant development in the advancement of human rights, the UN has declared May 3 as World Press Freedom Day. The date, incidentally, coincides with the anniversary of the Declaration of Windhoek, a statement on free press principles put together by African journalists in 1991. Not bad for a town rebuilt by a German army major, Curt Von Francois, in 1890 and now the capital city of the Republic of Namibia.

Considering the tumultuous history of this African nation from being a German colony and later annexed by Great Britain through its proxy, South Africa, the origin of the World Press Freedom Day, therefore, holds a special meaning to those who preach and practise press freedom.

However, like any other UN-declared days, I feel that the World Press Freedom Day on May 3 will come to pass without so much fanfare, as Malaysians brace themselves for the outcome of the elusive GE 13, most likely to be called on March 30. As attention will be focused on mending the wounds created by pre-election media hypes by both sides of the political divide, the significance of the day will definitely be lost in transition. Most Malaysians are suffering from a serious bout of election fatigue caused by too much posturing and politicking by an over-cautious Prime Minister too unsure of himself.

Notwithstanding this, the World Press Freedom Index 2013 by Paris-based ‘Reporters Without Borders’ (Reporters Sans Frontières) or RWB, has ranked Malaysia at number 145 out of 179 countries under its review. This is the lowest ranking the country has ever recorded since the French NGO started its listing in 2002. We dropped 23 spots compared to the 2011 Index. The best Malaysia ever recorded was in 2006 when it was positioned at number 92.

The fact that countries like Bangladesh, Libya, Kyrgyzstan, Thailand, Indonesia and Brunei are better off than us says plenty about Najib’s insistence that “Malaysia is the best democracy in the world”. And if that is not bad enough, Myanmar, once an international outcast, is fast catching up with Malaysia.

As far as our leaders are concerned, so long as Singapore (ranked 149) is below us, that is perfectly fine for them. This is something similar to the  rivalry between the Rangers and the Askar Melayu (Malay Regiment) in the army. And being a pure-bred Ranger officer, I subscribe to the notion that it is perfectly okay to lose a game to any other team but not to the Askar Melayu. This is a poor reflection of our leaders’ mentality and a sad day for Malaysians, per se.

As journalists we have a major responsibility to perform, and perform well we must if we wish to see a better ranking in the years ahead. However, it is easier said than done, considering the circumstances we are in.

There are 10 fundamental principles known as the “Ten Commandments” that define good journalism. I shall dwell on five, which are related to what those in the mainstream media, including yours, truly are culpable:

Telling the truth. Not something easy, as most journalists and reporters know which side their bread is buttered. Being salaried staff, their obligation is towards their paymasters, especially advertisers and media owners, and not the rakyat. I say this for myself too.

The need for verification. This is time consuming, thus journalists take the easy way out by writing what his or her gut-feeling says. Truth is, therefore, compromised.

Unbiased reporting. Again easier said than done, especially in the Malaysian context. If the reporter is covering an event involving a senior politician, it is difficult for him/her to report honestly on what he/she sees and hears. The tendency to sensationalise, and to please, is so overwhelming.

Make the significant interesting and relevant. Over here the news that is significant and relevant is often hidden between the lines. Therefore, it is difficult for the layman to comprehend unless he understands the hidden meaning. Most, unfortunately, do not.

A forum for public criticism. This seldom happens as our journalists are apt to practise self-censorship. When news is so stereotyped and biased towards the ruling party what is there to criticise? The forum has been “self-censored” for good.

Having taken cognisance of the above, press freedom in Malaysia is so screwed up that it will take a while before a semblance of sensibility is achieved. To get the now unassailable score of 1 to 10 on RWB’s press freedom scale, our leaders have to literally open up the country for a media-frenzy fest. Laws that inhibit press freedom have to be abolished in order to free mindsets so frozen in time and to overcome self-created fears.

In the meantime, we have to put up with whatever the local news media serves up. Do we have a choice? Press freedom in Malaysia, in all honesty, is a myth or more succinctly, a joke. Period.

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