Najib’s call to the media

Is Najib serious?

"BUT to shape society's knowledge, so that we are more intellectual, critical, and can think objectively, this is also the role of the press. You can't report only stories that are sensational, hot or about conflicts only." These were Umno president and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak's words during the 20 May 2010 groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of Utusan Melayu (M) Ltd's new headquarters. Najib also said, "[The] integrity of your reports is important, because there is no point if you constantly need to apologise for your news."
Reporters from some other independent media outlets have characterised this as Najib "reprimanding" Malay-language daily Utusan Malaysia, or "calling for change". Najib seemed to be making a general assessment of the national media. But his remarks are certainly pertinent as president of the party that owns Utusan Malaysia, Utusan Melayu's flagship publication.

But more importantly, is Najib serious about encouraging a more critical and responsible press? Since his party owns or controls several national news outfits, what concrete steps can he take to keep to his word? And what can journalists working within these organisations do to rise to Najib's call?

Najib's options with Utusan
Perhaps as the leader of Utusan's largest shareholder, Najib is worried about the decline in the paper's circulation figures. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, Utusan's circulation dropped from 213,445 in 2006 to 181,346 in 2009. Another Umno-controlled Malay daily, Berita Harian, also saw circulation drop from 203,704 in 2006 to 183,187 in 2009. This slide cannot be attributed to overall weak newspaper circulation. Other dailies have seen marked increases in circulation during the same period. These include Malay-language Kosmo and Harian Metro, Chinese-language Sin Chew Daily and China Press, and English-language theSun.

Said ZahariMore important, though, is the intensity of public opinion against Utusan's coverage, which critics see as Umno and/or Barisan Nasional (BN) propaganda. This analysis is at least five decades old. When then Umno president and Prime Minister of Malaya Tunku Abdul Rahman wanted to take over Utusan Melayu in 1961, its editor-in-chief, Said Zahari said:

"Tunku, you want Utusan to serve only Umno; it can no longer be the Malays' voice. Slowly, people will understand. Even if they buy the newspaper, it will not be because they support you, but because they have no alternative."
According to Said, Tunku replied, "No, no, we'll make sure it won't happen." Singapore-born Said then led a historic strike at Utusan Melayu against this political interference, resulting in him being barred from entering Malaya. He marks this as the beginning of the "death of press freedom" in this land, and even told then New Straits Times editor-in-chief, Leslie Hoffman:

Will Najib reverse Tunku's historic action against Utusan?
"Mark my words. Now that they are taking over Utusan, they are taking over our freedom to run a newspaper as genuine journalists, like you and I feel it should be. In the next few years, even the Straits Times will be taken over by them."

The question to Najib then is, is he aware of this piece of history? As a self-proclaimed reformist, will Najib reverse Tunku's historic action against Utusan? If yes, will he lead Umno's divestment, or at least remove political control, from all the media companies it owns? Can he do it? Why would he, anyway?
Utusan's options with Umno

There is a high likelihood that Utusan will not be released from Umno's control, at least not during Najib's presidency. So would that mean that therefore Utusan will be unable to live up to Najib's calls for media reform? Indeed, maintaining independence from those we report on is a key principle of responsible and ethical journalism. This is why government or political party control seems to dominate any critical discussion on press freedom in Malaysia.

Nevertheless, in our recent interview with former ntv7 producer Joshua Wong Ngee Choong, it is clear that ethics and responsibility do not fly out the window for journalists who work in government or party-controlled environments. Political ownership of the media and other legislative restrictions are only part of the equation when talking about the lack of press freedom, says Wong. The other part is a crisis of values within newsrooms. Wong concludes that journalists should constantly interrogate themselves about why they are in the profession.
And so from this perspective, the following might be some editorial possibilities for Utusan to take up Najib's challenge, political control notwithstanding:

1 Be loyal to citizens
Political control might dictate certain no-go zones in the traditional media. But even if journalists there need to prioritise reporting on the government (as opposed to reporting fairly on both the government and the opposition), reports can be framed such that they inform the public interest. Would the newspaper ask questions of its political owner with the public's needs in mind, or is it merely being its political owner's loudspeaker?

2 Verify all facts and quotes
Just because an outfit is owned by the ruling party does not mean journalists should have the license to quote opposition party leaders out of context. If even opposition leaders, among other stakeholders, can be assured that their views will be accurately and fairly reported in a government-controlled outfit, credibility can be swiftly regained.

3 Provide space for public criticism and compromise
Journalists are not only brokers of facts and truths to the public. They are also facilitators of public opinion. And public opinion does not just cover the extremes in arguments on any given issue — it also includes the many positions in between. For example, alongside its pro-establishment Muslim columnist Dr Mohd Ridhuan Tee Abdullah, would Utusan allow column space to other writers from, say, a conservative, secular, and liberal Muslim group? Only after understanding a variety of views, expressed critically, truthfully and in a civil manner, can the public be informed enough to develop its own stand on important issues.

4 Keep the news comprehensive and proportional
Comparison of Utusan's frontpage during the BN's Hulu Selangor by-election victory, and Pakatan Rakyat's
Sibu by-election victory
If journalism can be seen as a map of issues, it is then possible that citizens could get lost if journalists do not fully represent the overall landscape. How do editors judge newsworthiness? How did Utusan's editors decide that the BN's Hulu Selangor by-election victory deserved the front page, while the Pakatan Rakyat's Sibu victory did not? Was that a decision made by the editorial team, or was it politically dictated?

5 Minimise harm
How then would journalists minimise harm — to themselves, to the public, and to their sources — if such political interference were inevitable? After all, journalists are first and foremost human beings, as are the people they work with, speak with and critique. What would editors do if they were politically instructed to demonise or persecute a particular individual or group?

These are not impossible principles to live by. For example, Wong's interview with The Nut Graph showed that he tried to live by these principles for seven whole years at the network. Neither are these principles archaic nor merely conceptual. They have, in fact, been compiled by experienced media practitioners in consultation with fellow journalists.

All these mean that Najib's exhortations are entirely achievable — neither Umno nor its vast media empire need to reinvent the wheel to regain credibility. Question is, are they up to the challenge? Or is it just posturing we're seeing from the Umno leadership?

25/05/10

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