Is the media doing a disservice to Malaysians through misrepresentation?


Is the media doing a disservice to Malaysians through misrepresentation?
By Zan Azlee

As part of the democratic process, the media has always been considered the fourth estate. Its responsibility is to be watchdogs for the people – it keeps the government in check by reporting on the administration and its operations.

These reports provide the information that the people will use to hold the elected representatives accountable for the things they do. And if the people feel that the representatives are not doing a good job, then they can take it to the polls.

This is all well and good, but what happens when the media don’t carry out their roles responsibly? Who should be the watchdogs of the watchdogs?

I say this because in recent times, there have been cases where this has happened.

Earlier this week, Umno MP Khairy Jamaluddin called out the media for an “unfair” headline used in a report regarding Deputy Prime Minister Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. In Parliament, she had responded to Khairy’s question about the issue of child marriage.

A local newspaper, in its online report on the matter, used the headline ‘Malaysia to allow child marriages to go on, but tighter enforcement’.

Apparently, it was a misrepresentation of what Wan Azizah had said and Khairy immediately took to social media to rebuke the portal.

According to him, the DPM had said that the government is moving towards the banning of child marriages, and until that can happen, they will tighten enforcement on existing laws. If anyone had watched the Parliamentary proceedings, this would have been very clear.

After all the attention, the particular news media then changed the headline to ‘Malaysia to have tighter rules on child marriages’ and added a note at the bottom which reads “We have amended our headline to better reflect what the Deputy Prime Minister said in Parliament”.

Another example that I can give is regarding the issue of female circumcision and female genital mutilation (FGM). This was brought up recently during Malaysia’s Universal Periodic Review for human rights which took place in Geneva, Switzerland, last week.

I was at Wisma Putra watching the proceeding live along with Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah and witnessed the government representative responding to the question by the reviewing countries regarding female circumcision and FGM.

I distinctly heard him say in clear English that Malaysia does not practise FGM and although circumcision is practised, it is mild and involves no cutting. Nowhere does his statement ever indicate that Malaysia supports female genital mutilation.

His exact words were:

“Malaysia objects to any practices that are harmful to young female babies and children. Malaysia does not practise FGM, but the practice of female circumcision on babies is allowed as it is part of a cultural obligation…the type of circumcision practised is very mild and does not involve any cutting. The Health Ministry provides a guideline which specifies only accredited medical professionals are allowed to perform the procedure.”

The very next day, a majority of media outlets published articles and headlines that portrayed Malaysia as supporting FGM. This then created a chain of reaction from the public who were angered that the government supported such a practice.

I see female circumcision (or even male circumcision even) as a choice and not obligatory, and it seems that the Malaysian government looks at it that way too. There is no law in the country that says an individual needs to be circumcised. You can if you want, and so be it if you don’t.

I see FGM as a cruel and disgusting practice, and again, it seems that the government sees it as so too. Even for proper circumcisions, Malaysia has specific guidelines that need to be adhered to by legitimate medical practitioners.

So why did so many of the media still spin the story and misrepresent what actually happened?

I have been working as a journalist for close to twenty years now and I am led to believe that it is all about sensationalism.

Such sensational headlines would mean more clicks, more readers and more eyeballs that they can count. It’s as simple as that.

Unfortunately, this does a big disservice to society and it is also unfair to the very people we are supposed to be keeping in check.

It’s okay to have interesting and attention-grabbing headlines. It’s okay to have intense drama in a news article. It’s okay to have conflict, anger and dissatisfaction in too. It’s all part of giving a good presentation.

But it is not okay to distort facts. It is not okay to misrepresent people, issues and incidents. It is definitely not okay to not be truthful and honest.

So from one journalist to another, I would like to appeal to my fellow comrades, let’s take our role and responsibility seriously.

[This article was originally written for and published at Malaysiakini.com]

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