Saturday, April 20

The Fourth Estate under seige

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File photo shows a demonstrator holds a poster with a picture of Khashoggi outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. — Reuters photo

I’M not sure if you have heard this before: when a dog bites a man, it is not news; but when a man bites a dog, that is news!

It is the job of a newsman to write about an event of human interest for the information of the community, not about other newsmen, normally. But, it seems that we are living in abnormal times – news men make news!

For the past decade we have been reading about journalists getting into all sorts of trouble in the course of their work – from getting killed while reporting on the battle fields to being sued for defamation for exposing scandals in high places. Many others, critics of governments, are languishing in jails awaiting trial.

Still many new ones are joining the Fourth Estate knowing fully well of the hazards of the profession. True to their profession as messengers, they risk their lives so that others may know of a particular situation heard or observed by the reporter at close range and on the spot.

There is no way for the other members of the community of finding out what actually has happened except from an eye witness. A good reporter is an eye witness as well as a distributor of the news. There may be other versions of the same story in the social media but his version gets published by a newspaper or a magazine or aired over the airwaves.

Modern living is almost impossible without information. We cannot do without journalists such as those working for the radio or TV stations or magazines or the newspapers. They are all accountable for the correctness of their reports even though sometimes these are politically incorrect. For that they get into trouble with the powers that be. But that is an occupational hazard that all journalists would accept as part of their life.

One freedom, however, over which there’s no compromise is the freedom of the Press. The members of the Fourth Estate would feel helpless if a country should distrust the journalists.

A wise government can work well with the Press if an esprit de corps exists between them, a relationship based on a genuine mutual respect. Any condescending attitude on the part of the government is depressing to the Press.

The Press men and women should be allowed to do their work without any hint of remote control over what they report, should print or should not print. That would imply distrust and this suspicion is not helpful in terms of their relationship. The community is being deprived of a reliable source of information.

The journalists are expected to know the distinction between a libel and a fair comment; what constitutes a public or human interest. Their reputation or that of the organisation they work for is vital and they will protect it at any cost.

Imagine a situation in a country without all these messengers and distributors of information. The inhabitants of a country would rely on the word of mouth only or from the birds.

I remember reading a story many years ago about a chicken rounding up all the animals in the vicinity to run for safety because the sky is falling.

A good reporter won’t immediately swallow hook and line a Chicken-licken story, with due respect to her station in life. He will check his information with a more intelligent elephant or orang-utan who is in a better position to see where exactly the sky has fallen. If it did fall!

But in the old story, everybody believed what the chicken told them.

The reporter staying on the job despite danger goes to check, double-check with Mr Frog and Mrs Bat about the exact spot, only to find that the falling object is a coconut!

Reliance on rumours

Several analysts are of the opinion that the killings during the infamous May 13, 1969 riots in Kuala Lumpur would have been reduced considerably, or confined to a small part of KL had the mass media been allowed to report what they actually saw. In the absence of reliable information, people relied on rumours. The result was that the areas of conflict were enlarged, unnecessarily.

‘We feeling’

The reporter is a member of the Fourth Estate with worldwide connections. The ‘we feeling’ amongst the journalists is strong. You touch one, you touch all. That explains why there is so much sympathy and support for journalists in danger of their lives in many countries. We can just pray that this will never happen in Malaysia!

One would have thought that the circumstances surrounding the alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi would only exist in the imagination of an author like Agatha Christie – and the killer is always found by a brilliant Belgian detective, M Poirot.

There must be many Poirots on the murder trails in Jamal’s case and we hope to read about their findings soon.

Not just journalists, the whole world is asking: ‘who ordered the killing of Jamal, why kill a journalist?’

Investigations are going on. Hopefully, the team of detectives of Poirot’s calibre will eventually point to the real killer(s) of a journalist.

Government and the mass communications

The constraint is that sometimes members of the free press and the authorities in most countries are not in the same page and do not see the same problem from the same angle. But the angle of the reporter is to find the ‘whos’, the ‘hows’. the ‘whys’, and the ‘whats’ – nothing more nothing less.

The outcome of his investigation and report is another matter. That’s for the appropriate authorities to follow up and take action, if necessary. This is not his field. At this stage his job is done. His next task is to write about the investigations made by the authorities and in the case of a serious scandal that goes to the court the reporter will be there to witness the proceedings. If the accused is found ‘Not Guilty’ by the court he will inform his editor accordingly. He reports the truth as he sees it.

What makes a reporter curious is when the truth is being withheld from him. That leads him to finding more about a particular case and that’s how he gets into trouble with people or with the law. But that is a hazard of his duty if he wants to serve his country as a journalist.

Working for the Fourth Estate under siege, who says he is not counted among the patriots?

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