Monday, June 13, 2005

A Licence to Control Journalists? (Malaysia)

A licence to control journalists?

Mustafa K Anuar*
Aug 13, 2002
* Mustafa Anuar is also one of ACN's core group members
The idea floated by the indefatigable Zainuddin Maidin, parliamentary secretary of the Information Ministry, that a journalist should be licensed (malaysiakini, Aug. 1) may be casually brushed aside by many Malaysians as being ludicrous.

On close inspection, however, this suggestion may have to be dealt with seriously as it offers dangerous implications.

For one thing, this proposition is reminiscent of the notorious Zimbabwe’s recent ruling — under the dubious rubric of Freedom of Information Act — of licensing its journalists in a supposed desire to weed out ‘bad journalism’.

In essence, say human rights and media watchers, this law, which also requires journalists to follow a stringent ‘code of ethics’, makes the practice of investigative journalism difficult.

(Incidentally, the Zimbabwean regime is now locked in a legal battle with London’s The Guardian because it accuses the latter’s correspondent in Harare of ‘publishing falsehoods’ in its online service, a legal precedent that could persuade other countries to consider applying ‘local criminal jurisdiction over foreign web postings’ [The Guardian, June 17]).

Assumptions and implications

If there is a lesson to be learnt from the Zimbabwean experience, as already intimated above, the proposal to issue a sort of ‘certificate of fitness’ to Malaysian journalists via a certain institution suggests an attempt to control, nay tame, journalists who have been perceived as being too independent and critical.

This could apply to certain journalists in both the mainstream as well as alternative media. Through this formal procedure, a journalist who stoically sticks to her investigative journalism is likely to be ‘de-registered’ and made redundant while others may be encouraged to exercise an ever bigger measure of self-censorship.

But let’s pause a moment and assume that Zam, as the ex-journalist is popularly known, has the noblest of intentions to improve the professionalism of journalists in the country. As he further explained, the licensing institution concerned would uphold ‘certain criteria, structure and quality’.

And let’s suppose that in its yearning to upgrade journalistic standards, the proposed body would put emphasis on ethics and ‘good journalism’, which, we’d like to believe, would mean that journalists undergoing training would be instructed to exercise, among other things, fairness and seek truth in their reporting.

In other words, in reporting about a certain issue, all the parties concerned should be given an even platform, while parties that have been criticised or even maligned will be provided with the right to reply.

Realities of implementation

Based on these assumptions, how would, then, certain editors and journalists in the mainstream press and TV stations square with these dignified criteria that are supposedly upheld by the licensing body?

As many of us are well aware, the mainstream media are generally close to the government, have been biased towards the powers that be, have denied sufficient access, if at all, to the opposition, and have helped demonise critics of the government especially in the run-up to general elections or by-elections.

This is of course not to insinuate that journalists from the alternative media are incapable of committing reportorial misdeeds, such as being unfair and making factual errors.
So is Zam serious enough to promote and upgrade journalistic professionalism to the extent of cleansing the mass media, particularly the mainstream media, of such ugly but ‘useful’ elements?

We’re talking of ideological apparatuses, with warts and all, that the government considers important and influential in maintaining status quo, mind you.

Zam’s suggestion is indeed questionable. For recent events — such as the move on the part of the Foreign Affairs Ministry to compel political parties to seek its approval before making use of foreign media to explain their policies and views (malaysiakini, July 23) — only reinforces the suspicion that the government hasn’t opted to enhance freedom of expression and help improve mainstream media accessibility to the general public. If anything, the right to express and communicate one’s views is further curtailed.

Question of independence

This is why the proposal to license journalists casts some doubts. Whose interests would this body really serve?

What is equally crucial to this issue is, just as one would be highly cautious of the membership of the proposed Malaysian media council, one should also be concerned about who constitute the body that is empowered to grant the so-called ‘Certificate of Journalism Practice’. Would the members of this institution be independent of the powers that be?
This is certainly vital as it relates to the question of who will eventually be given the sole authority to define ‘good journalism’ or ‘truly professional journalists’ in the entire country?

What will be the criteria used to ‘ordain’ a person the title of journalist, or conversely, to ‘excommunicate’ someone who has been deemed ‘fake journalist’ from the journalistic fraternity?

Is this an effort to penalise those who are known not to have been intellectually ‘colonised’ by the powers-that-be?

‘Schooling’ the journalist

More questions are raised. For instance, would the training of the prospective journalists by the licensing body prior to their getting the certificates entail the internalising of certain journalistic and political values that are cherished by the powers that be?
In short, would the trainees be ‘schooled’ and chastised into believing — or at least to be constantly reminded of — that ‘good journalism’ is about always singing praises of the government?

Another question: would members of the general public (who are not ‘normal’ journalists) be required to apply for this certificate before they could make journalistic contributions in the media on a regular basis?

Wouldn’t this certification be construed as a means of discouraging people from expressing freely and of tampering with their democratic right to voice their opinions in public?

Curbs on critical thinking

To put in concrete terms, seen against this backdrop, is this proposal primarily aimed at putting out of circulation journalists and writers who have the penchant to exercise a good measure of independent and critical thinking, and who have been working with the country’s alternative media?

Would the likes of Lutfi, James Wong, Hishamuddin Rais, Lee Ban Chen, Fathi Aris Omar, Steven Gan and MGG Pillai, to name but a few, make the grade in this very certification of journalists?

For that matter, would the Indonesian Goenawan Mohamed of the Tempo fame be disqualified via the use of a certain measuring rod?

Given this scenario, the renewed assurance given by Deputy Home Minister Chor Chee Heung (malaysiakini, Aug. 1) that the Internet would be free of governmental censorship doesn’t necessarily allay our fears.
Internet-based journalists particularly, as we could imagine, would not be spared the ugly implications of this licensing poser.

Erosion of free speech

If it were merely a concern for journalistic professionalism, wouldn’t it be sufficient to cajole journalistic novices to attend certain reporting courses that can be organised by journalists’ associations or media organisations?

At least in the past (and also to some degree in the present), there had been such courses organised, although not necessarily in a rigid, formal structure, for the benefit of the working journalists in our country.

The intricacies of this licensing proposition as well as other recent media developments relating to the further erosion of freedom of expression seem to suggest that they are part and parcel of a larger ‘preparation’ of the ruling Barisan Nasional to face the forthcoming general election.

In other words, it appears that steps have already been taken by the ruling coalition to mount an ideological onslaught against the opposition that seem to be bickering among themselves and consequently providing fodder for the BN-controlled media.

If, to quote Abdullah Ahmad, the boss of the establishment New Straits Times, ‘(j)ournalism is a calling that is essential to preserving participatory democracy’ (NST, July 31) then this Zam poser ought to be a primary concern for those whose love is journalism — and freedom of expression.

Dr MUSTAFA K ANUAR habitually reads in between the lines of what is offered by Malaysia's media. At the same time, he's easily distracted by the comical, the artistic, and the political (and they're not necessarily mutually exclusive) particularly in the context of Malaysian society.