The main reason why professional journalism has yet to thrive fully in Malaysia is not the curb on press freedom or the hidden agenda of those who own the media but the attitude of local media journalists themselves.

Harping on the fact that the press is very much controlled by political parties and that a journalist is never given the freedom to write what he or she sees is a lame excuse if the journalist himself or herself never took the effort to uphold the very ethics of journalism.

At this moment in Malaysia, there are two main ethical mandates that need to be upheld when one is working for the media - reporting the whole truth and maintaining responsibility to the public. If these two standards are upheld, then the mainstream Malaysian media would not be in the mess it is now and the public would not have gone looking for alternative media and relying on the foreign press.

Having worked in two major newspapers for the past five years, it is a sad thing to say that many a time, the news reported is padded and the truth hidden away so much that one fails to see the whole truth in the story. This can be seen when feature editors in mainstream papers - in exposing the irregularities in this country - have had to many a time camouflage the truth so as to escape the scrutiny of the authorities who have the last say what goes to print and what does not. Thus, the partial truth is told.

A simple example, the many revelations of environmental problems have always been highlighted in major newspapers but it has yet to hit hard on Malaysians, simply because the way it was written by journalists failed to drive the truth home hard enough.

(I am not talking of printed copies. I have personally seen non-edited copies written by journalists themselves and they do not differ when they see final print. Journalists who are willing to bare the facts are few and rare. Today, this type of journalists have either left the industry or prefer to write for foreign media.)

Messing up

Actually, the situation was not so bad before. In recent years, however, a number of issues, particularly pertaining to Orang Asli and dams, have been downplayed as the whole truth hurts certain parties a bit too much.

Then there are the instances when politicians opened their mouths and said things which were just not comprehensible. The reporter, if interested in reporting the truth, would write out exactly what the politician had said and not cushion the statement or try to word it intelligently.

Even if the politicians "mess up", journalists seem to be at a loss whether to report the "mess" as it is, or check first with the editor what should be written. For example, during the recent Lunas by-election, when politicians from the same party contradicted themselves, the journalists say that they cannot write exactly what was said as they say their report will not come out in print, even if it is written.

What local journalists fail to understand is that it is of utmost importance that they themselves write the truth as it is. If it comes out in print in a different version altogether, so be it. The journalist has done his duty, that is what matters most. The debate with the sub-editors and editors can be shouted out later.

I personally have had the fortunate experience of being shouted at and thrown out by former tourism minister Sabaruddin Chik for asking the question: "Why did you not visit your constituency as you claim to?"

The article that I wrote narrated the details of exactly what he said and did, but when it saw the light of print, it was as if he was the best wakil rakyat ever visiting the farmers and all, when in truth he was not. The most important thing is my conscience is clear as I have written the truth.

Today, many journalists have come to an extent that when he or she writes, it is self censorship that has the upper hand.

Would this anger such and such a person? Would this lead to the downfall of such and such a person in authority? Does our editor know this Datuk personally? Is this too harsh for the minister? Who owns this company?

Good mood

And because of this, the truth is downsized and the article in the end, had to be read between the lines. If the journalist does not know how to write between the lines or if the reader does not know how to read between the lines, the truth is lost.

The second most important ethic in journalism is upholding the responsibility of what is written to the public. In short, writing for the people.

Many a time, I have heard mainstream journalists entering press conferences of top politicians in this country with this statement, "I will ask him the question if he is in a good mood."

The journalist does not exist to humour politicians, whether the Prime Minister or a branch leader. It is the journalist's responsibility to ask the questions with all the respect that is due, and if the interviewee is not in a good mood, that is simply none of the journalist's business.

If he refused to answer, then the journalist has a right to report that he has asked the question but the answer was in the affirmative. If it was a grunt of reply, then a grunt is what should be written. Let the people know.

There has also been the incident when I was offered a envelope of ringgit notes so that I do not report what I had just witnessed.

On returning the envelope the state assemblyman was so shocked that he said to the others, "Oh, dia bukan orang jenis ini! (Oh, she is not of this type!)"

Back doors

The reason why he gave the envelope to me and photographer colleague was to keep my mouth shut on the fact that he had made promises to give RM1 million to Orang Asli in his constituency in Pulau Indah who had water pipes and fans and computers in schools but without water and electricity supply. I was supposed to report on his promise but not the conditions of the Orang Asli.

The story got through after months it was written but no mention of the fact that the wakil rakyat was there at the place.

Especially in the case of elected politicians and authorities who themselves have a duty to the people, it is the right of the people to know how they behave and the words they exactly use.

With journalists perhaps being the only ones who are allowed to question the authorities, it is most pertinent that journalists be responsible to the people.

If the journalists have tried his or her best but was pushed aside, then try the back doors. It must be remembered that the world can be entered by many doors and there is not only one media today.

Journalists, who have always written the truth and take the effort to be responsible to the public in their reports, will come to a stage when they will to leave the media institution if the institution is no more credible in reporting the truth.

When journalists leave the media institution, journalists can live on but the media institutions will never be able to operate without journalists. That is an undisputed fact and if journalists push hard enough, the media institutions will have to move along to the demands of journalists. Only when journalists die, the media dies.

That is the simple truth.

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