Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad

With another layer of control being mooted through the government-proposed Media Consultative Council, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if Malaysian press reports and television news lose even more credibility over the next few months or so.

By Zaharom Nain (Aliran)

With all that is happening around us, we may well ask, what is happening to this country of ours? Could Euripedes have been right all those centuries ago, wonders Zaharom Nain.

William Bourdon’s deportation has generated even more publicity for the Scorpene investigations in France

Many of us have long been opposed to monopolistic or oligopolistic control of institutions, including media institutions. More often than not, critiques of such control have been leveled at large corporations or moguls. Indeed, such concentration of control often invariably leads to lack of transparency and, of course, of accountability.

Hence, many who are concerned about media freedom and democracy are currently pleased, if not absolutely thrilled, with the reports about the closure of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World (NOTW).

This, and the current revelations about the alleged dirty tricks employed by NOTW reporters and top executives, evidently now put Murdoch’s global media empire under much scrutiny and under threat.

But capitalists like Murdoch are not the only ones who wish to monopolise media ownership. Many tin-pot dictatorships and their authoritarian cousins also try to do so, believing in the maxim that those who own the means of material production (the economy, including media organisations) will also own and control the means of mental production (ideas).

Indeed, Malaysia presents a perfect example of such concentration of media ownership. But here it is very much political ownership, primarily in the hands of BN political parties, led by Umno. Sadly, though predictably of course, this has led to unethical reporting, deliberate distortion and misrepresentation and, more frequently now, the production of blatant lies.

One consequence has been the rapid decline in newspaper readership in Malaysia, with more people reading tabloids like Harian Metro and Kosmo, indicating perhaps the widespread assumption now that trivia is what’s important in a Malaysian newspaper (and television) and that `real’ news is to be got elsewhere.

And, with another layer of control being mooted through the government-proposed Media Consultative Council, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if Malaysian press reports and television news lose even more credibility over the next few months or so.

The problem with such attempts to monopolise information production these days is that new and alternative sources of information are now quite easily available. And, really, the condescending (and largely official) view that the rural heartland can still be swayed (read duped) by newspapers and television clearly doesn’t wash anymore.

Even the (allegedly ignorant) oppressed do wise up in the end. There is just so much condescension and stupidity that one can take, however humble and `uneducated’ one may be. And lately, surely out of desperation, the mainstream media and, especially, their political masters appear to have gone stir crazy.

Just this past week, the continuing overreaction to Bersih 2.0, the comments made about the late Teoh Beng Hock, and the deportation of William Bourdon have been but three clear examples of those in power having lost the script and very much lashing out blindly.

Indeed, the act of arresting, detaining and then sending elderly activist, Hii Tiong Huat, to a psychiatric ward surely smacks of more over-reaction? The poor guy has been arrested thrice in two weeks for apparently wearing a yellow t-shirt and carrying a sign board supporting Bersih, culminating in his being sent to a psychiatric hospital by the police on Friday.

Perhaps just ignoring him and spending more time catching real criminals might be a better strategy. Especially since the crime rates in KL and Selangor aren’t exactly something to boast about.

Then there’s the recent conclusion of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the death of Teoh Beng Hock. Of course, this being Malaysia, many had anticipated the outcome.

But the minister who announced the findings, himself purportedly a lawyer, surely went over the top with his `reading’ of Teoh Beng Hock’s character, when the RCI had made no such reference in its 124-page report. And what’s worse, when this was pointed out to him, he put the blame on his officers who had prepared the press statement for him.

This passing of the buck has become a shameful habit for many of those who like to see themselves as leaders, but really aren’t. And these days, they kid no one with this pathetic, uncouth behaviour.

The fact is, an innocent man is dead. Remember, he was summoned not as a suspect but as a potential witness.

And, whatever the shortcomings of the RCI, it has pointed out quite clearly at least three individuals who contributed to the death. Sure, they’ve now been suspended. But given that they are government officers, surely the least the minister could have done – indeed, surely the least the government must do – is tender an apology to Teoh Beng Hock’s family.

That’s precisely what the Malaysian Bar Council is asking of the government. Is that too much to ask of a government that talks about making Malaysia ‘a caring society’?

The third example of action and behaviour that make very little, if any, sense in this age of the internet has been, of course, the detention and deportation of French lawyer William Bourdon. Granted, Malaysian law does indeed allow for such action, without any explanation needed.

But, surely, if Bourdon had been left unimpeded to conduct his business – a high-profile case, we are now told by internet news sites, involving the French and the Scorpene submarine deal – fewer questions would have been raised and fewer people would now be talking about it while, perhaps, singing Yellow Submarine?

Indeed, last I heard, despite Bourdon being absent at the fund-raising dinner in KL, Suaram (the NGO at the heart of the case), still managed to get 500 attendees, raising RM200000 to help fund the case in the French courts. And now more people know about it simply because this French lawyer was deported for `violating the conditions of his social visit pass’.

So, there you have it. Three very recent cases – of overreaction, of intemperate behaviour, and of virtually blindly lashing out. All by people in authority. And I’ve deliberately left out UiTM’s Ibrahim Ali award (or is it non-award now?)

With all this happening, together with the ongoing detention of the PSM6 under the Emergency Ordinance, we may well ask, what is happening to this country of ours?

More pointedly, what is happening to make our `leaders’ act this way?

Indeed, could Euripedes have been right all those centuries ago?

Zaharom Nain, an Aliran member, is an academic who researches on media and communications issues.