A letter to Malaysian journalists: Journalism first! for Press freedom

A letter to Malaysian journalists: Journalism first! for Press freedom
As is the case everywhere in the world, the phrase freedom of the press has been defined and butchered many times since the invention of journalism.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,

As is the case everywhere in the world, the phrase freedom of the press has been defined and butchered many times since the invention of journalism.

Every countries worth its mettle have constantly find a way to curtail or redefine these so-called freedom of the press by legislation, rules and interference from the powers-that-be, whether its political or religious and in Malaysian case, both.

For the sake of this discourse, its suffice to define 'press freedom' as 'the fundamental right to a democratic society to seek out and circulates news, information, ideas, comment and opinion and holds those in authority to account'. The press should provide the platform for a multiplicity of voices to be heard.

It should act as the public’s watchdog, activist and guardian as well as educator, entertainer and contemporary chronicler to the public at any level, prerogative of the authorities or at the privilege of a journalist."

When journalists and employees of Bahasa Malaysia daily, Utusan Melayu took protest to the streets in what is known today as a legendary strike to protest over a takeover by a political party in 1961.

Their main objective to hold the strike was to be independent and free of political and authority influences.

Legendary journalist and leader of the demonstration, Said Zahari was booted out to Singapore and spent 17 years in prison afterwards.
He summed up his actions with the statement "Only with a free policy could Utusan Melayu be the voice of the people, fighting for the interests of the people with sincerity, integrity and courage.”

Two publications, Star and Sin Chew Jit Poh were forced to shut down in 1987 after plagued with controversies, thanks to a series of political and race issues surrounding the media realm at that time. The publications were resurrected through yet another takeover by political parties.

Press freedom in Malaysia is under Article 10 Clause (1) of the Federal Constitution, which states that “Every citizen has the right to freedom of speech and expression”, but that right is “subject to Clauses (2), (3) and (4)”.

The right is given only to citizens and it is not absolute but subject to certain well-defined restrictions, including the security of the Federation, public order, morality, protecting the privileges of Parliament or State Assembly, contempt, defamation, incitement to any offence and sedition.

This makes journalists and publishers in the country tiptoeing around the limitations set by what seemed to be an archaic law definition under the Official Secrets Acts 1972, Sedition Act 1948 and the granddaddy of it all, Printing and Press Publication Act 1984.

Journalists matters?

With the development and rising usage of the information technology, the Malaysian media has evolved from television and printed papers to digital publications and internet broadcast, creating a new ecosystem for thriving news publishers and journalists.

These journalists have changed the media landscape in the country and for the first time since the takeover of a news publications by the authorities, the public were able to enjoy more and varied information and reports, at their finger tips.

With many new publications on the rise, the number of journalists have too increased and as far as the numbers go, more have become increasingly interested to adhere to the definition of press freedom.

Alas, the legacy of rules and regulations had left the media landscape in the country in a broken and divided state. Akin to the divide-and-rule principle commonly practice by the British Empire to stifle community unity in the country between the 18th and 19th century.

The journey towards the freedom of press in the country is not  can not be done without the journalists themselves believe and subscribe to the basic principle of journalism we know and learn whether in schools and on the job.

"Truth and Accuracy" under the journalism ethics

Nowhere in the ethics connote that that 'truth and accuracy' were provided by the powers-that-be. It is the responsibility under each and every hands that write or type the first copy of the report.

That's what makes the addendum to "Journalism First" -- the cardinal rules that every journalists have to adhere to and believe in.

During the Bersih 3 rally on April 28, 2012, several journalists -- were arrested in a crossfire between the cops -- while they were carrying out their tasks.

A gathering was held the same night  where mostly young journalists from various publications were united in recognising the importance to "protect the journalists."

Bersih 3.0
Photo credit:tb-Bernama

The first thing that enables the freedom of press is the most basic part, having journalists belief that they are all part of the same force that promote the development of the country, democracy and public's point of view.

Without this unity, this belief and esprit de corp, journalists -- in the eyes of the public as the ones who abide by policymakers' decisions and do not have the right whatsoever to control and belittle this noble profession.

The objective of this writing is not a call for arms to every journalist to rise and take the struggle to the streets. Yet it is gentle reminder that editors, special writers, photographers, sub-editors or supplement writers for online, prints, dailies or weeklies. full-time, stringers, correspondents or field producers are brothers and sisters who earn their incomes to bring food to the table for their families and subscribe to this belief: "Journalism First."

The public, the rich persons who owned and funded the publications, who might never care to understand what it meant by chasing sources, waiting endless hours in the rain, reaching home late at night or early morning, having to put up with barrages of harassment from political parties (on both sides) or authorities, having to postpone personal appointments, missed reunions, reduced family times, last minute cross country/state call-ups, surviving on coffee and/or biscuits, we must believe that the ones who should be on our sides are ourselves.

If that did not happen, how else are we going to define what being a journalist is all about? Go figure ... 

* The writer is a Malaysian journalist

** The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI