Honest journalism and better democracy

AT their best, you might assume that in a healthy democracy, the realms of journalism and civil society share the same goal. Both want to expand the space – whether in print, online, conference halls or on the streets – in which citizens can discuss the state of the country and debate the ideologies and policies that they believe will take the country forward.

At their worst, agents of both are compromised by undemocratic interests: even in countries regarded as established democracies, newspapers and so-called non-governmental organisations are seen as lobby groups under the thumb of certain political parties, corporations or trade unions. But at least this is mitigated by transparency in terms of ownership and funding, and more crucially, by competition in the media space. In dictatorships, these aspects are absent.

In Malaysia, the print media remains strongly regulated, but the space secured by the mass penetration of the Internet (and then specifically social media) as well as the more relaxed view towards civil society under Tun Abdullah Badawi (compared to the previous environment) has made permanent some avenues for the expression of alternative views. However, investigating certain topics or ‘insulting’ certain individuals are off-limits and can lead to the closure of your online portal or you being in jail.

However, I have to take issue with one aspect of journalism that ultimately erodes our democratic space: namely, the sensationalisation of events that in the long run will constrain the expression of views. Here is a recent personal example.

A few weeks ago, I spoke at a conference on democracy in South East Asia organised by the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) and the Kofi Annan Foundation. In the main session, I spoke about the regional – and international – trend for politicians to exploit differences within the population for electoral purposes (whether by race, religion, language, geography etc) and that this will result in greater divisions within our countries. We will not achieve greater democracy in the region unless principles like human rights and rule of law are widely understood first, and I was sceptical that Asean would take a more proactive role, since it is led by political elites with little incentive to encourage political competition.

Later came the questions to the panellists. The final one directed to me alleged that I too was a member of ‘the elite’ and yet, I was speaking about democracy: the implication being that this is unusual – and asked whether elites merely replace each other.

My answer was threefold. Firstly, that so-called ‘elites’ are citizens and have as much a stake in political stability and economic opportunity as anyone else. Secondly, leadership is not about background but morality: specifically, I said, “you have to distinguish between elites who abuse the machinery of state to enrich themselves, and those who don’t”. Thirdly, so-called ‘elites’ governed in the early days of our nation and yet we had better governance and more transparency. The session ended with the customary group photographs and thank yous, and I went on with my day.

At around dinner time I began receiving messages asking if I “really said what was reported”. So I had a look at what was reported, and understood why. Some headlines bore little resemblance to what I actually said, implying that I only support ‘elite leadership’. Even though corrections were later made, the reality is that comparatively fewer people will read an amended version of an article.

I understand the motive for journalists to make sexy headlines. They want to attract eyeballs to sell newspapers and generate advertisement revenue. But what I say to my journalist friends is that such tactics are counterproductive, for two reasons.

First, exaggeration and spin damage the trust that people have in the media. Having been a victim of misquotation, whenever someone else now claims that they have been misquoted, I might actually believe them.

Second, this erosion of trust could grow to the extent that people might simply not want to participate in public forums because of the possibility of being misreported.

The reason why panellists agree to speak at conferences (for free) is because we appreciate the organiser inviting us to share our opinions with a wider audience.

But if we now have to factor in the possibility of a mischievous reporter deliberately spinning a small segment of what we say in a defamatory way, that is obviously a deterrent.

That would play directly into the hands of those who loathe democracy, for not only would the means by which the public acquire information be discredited, but the platforms through which views are exchanged and debated would be weakened too.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.

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