Ethics in an unethical world


The preamble states: “A group of experts, drawn from different regions and disciplines  will  discuss major ethical challenges facing broadcasters and other media professionals in an environment in which the social media have been assuming increasing importance and influence.” I don’t know about ‘experts’, but in a week or so, on a warm afternoon in Bangkok , I’m sure, five of us from Abu Dhabi , France , India , Iran and, of course, Malaysia will be talking about this elusive and problematic concept called ‘ethics’.

The panel discussion, organised as part of the Asia Media Summit, is titled “Journalistic Ethics in the Age of the New Media: Opportunities and Challenges”.

Actually, journalists and ethics have become rather a hot topic in Malaysia these days, with a number of senior journalists recently getting together to create the KL-based Institute of Journalists , aimed at enhancing professional journalistic practices and standards. A short while later, last week in fact, together with a couple of thousand other journalists and supporters, these same journalists signed and submitted a petition to the PM.

The petition demanded that the PM, the Home Minister and the IGP issue a public apology to journalists, especially those hurt during the Bersih rally, conduct an impartial inquiry into the allegations of violence, return or replace seized or damaged equipment and provide reasonable restitution to those affected.

Strong demands indeed from a group of practitioners who for some decades now have often been vilified for being spin doctors and state propagandists instead of truth seekers. Indeed, a group that, over the past month or so, has been drawn even more into questionable, certainly unethical, practices.

First, of course, was that totally appalling hatchet job done by a local television provider on the BBC coverage of the Bersih rally. You know, the one where these guys, without informing the BBC, let alone seeking its permission, simply chopped pieces off the BBC report to skew the message in a different way.

No explanation was offered by the local company, of course.  It was left, instead, to the minister concerned to come up with a lame and pathetic excuse for this attempt at deception, citing silly ‘local sensitivities.’

So, how then can we talk about ‘journalistic ethics’ when those at a higher, political level, display such little concern for ethical behaviour? That indeed will be the first comment I will be making on the matter in Bangkok.

Next, of course, is the blatant lie that was conveyed by not one, but two, national newspapers about an Australian lawmaker. Yes, the one that alleged that he’s anti-Islam and had made anti-Islamic statements when he had said no such thing.

Was it a ‘gaffe’ as an apologist Internet columnist put it? Or was it a deliberate attempt at deception, as others have asserted? I don’t know about you, but given the low standards of reporting prevalent in Malaysia , and the consistency of the disinformation churned out by these rags, I’d opt for the latter assertion. Of course, too, we’d need to pause and consider who exactly own and control these newspapers.

So, indeed, there are clear problems of legitimacy and lack of ethics in the Malaysian media these days.  In relation to this, and to provide the ‘big picture’, just last Wednesday, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), released its latest annual report, Freedom of Expression in Malaysia 2011.

In it, CIJ states: “Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak and his government went to great lengths in 2011 to demonstrate that the Barisan Nasional (BN) government is ready for reform. However, events in 2011 tell a different story. The announced legal reforms do not go far enough to ensure an open and democratic Malaysia .”

Certainly, there’s been a lot of talk by this administration, a lot of promises even. But, thus far, when push has come to shove, the so-called legal reforms leave much to be desired. Indeed, if we look at the promised reforms in greater detail, like the proposed new act to replace the ISA, we’ll find that that it’s all really ‘business as usual’, with much obfuscation and little advance.  And, of course, the ‘amendments’ to the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) are really anything but.

For instance, the main complaint by many as regards the PPPA is the need for a yearly licence which will or will not be granted by the Home Ministry (KDN).

Well, the ‘new’ Act says that a licence need only be applied for (and granted) once and doesn’t need to be renewed. But then, it also says that this same licence can be withdrawn at any time by the Home Ministry.

Nothing different there surely? We really are not that dumb anymore to be condescendingly receiving `freedom’ from their right hand and then have that freedom removed by their left. Indeed, I would conclude my presentation next week by arguing strongly that, first, it is well-nigh impossible to talk about ethical journalism in an absolutely unethical, indecent environment. An environment evidently where ugly butts, distasteful burgers, and loutish behaviour generally, are officially sanctioned, indeed encouraged.

Second, I would say that despite all this vile developments in Malaysia, the onus is on us – civil society – to be vigilant and to press for the repeal of repressive laws – put in place by the government, let us not forget.

To be sure, it would require quite a bit of unlearning on our part, a discarding of worn, feudal perceptions about the nature of ‘leaders’ and the embracing of new standards and higher values.

Only then, I would say, can we start thinking about developing an ethical people, and more democratic institutions – including the media – that, in the end, are more accountable to us, the rakyat.