Trial by media, guilty by perception

R Rajaratnam, Malaysia Now

We live in a time of a proliferation of information. Information, whether verified or not, is easily shared on a multitude of social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram, all with a click of a finger.

Facts, pseudo facts and downright lies are all jumbled up and for the less astute, it is not easy to differentiate what is real and what is fake. In fact, those who consider themselves educated and politically astute are not necessarily immune to behind-the-scenes manipulations which can easily hijack the narrative by feeding into the unchecked prejudices of the reader.

An award-winning documentary, “The Great Hack” on Netflix, comes to mind. The film, based on real-life events, explores how a data company, Cambridge Analytica, came to symbolise the dark side of social media in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election which saw Trump, trumping over Clinton, building on the narrative of “Clinton, the liar.”

I have been examining the chronology of events that culminated in the present crisis besetting the MACC chief commissioner, whereby civil society and political parties across the divide coalesce, all calling for the resignation of Azam Baki with greater and greater vigour.

Even without due legal process and proof, you can almost hear them chanting, “Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!”

From what I see, it is a combination of seriously delayed responses, unconvincing explanations, and the ineptness of the chairman of the MACC advisory monitoring body, in a tragic comedy of errors, which led to the perception that the chief commissioner is guilty even before any real evidence is shown.

A PR nightmare, but the fact remains:

It is not a crime to delay explanation.

It is not a crime for a civil servant to own shares.

It is not a crime for his family members to be engaged in business and buying shares all over the place.

The case in question happened in 2015, 2016, and Azam, as the facts stand, has returned all the shares to his brother, in the process making a loss.

There is no evidence of insider trading that enabled Azam or his brother to make a handsome profit from the purchase in those two years.

He had also declared his shares to his department chief then, as he explained.

As to the question of the legality of his brother using his share trading account, the Securities Commission is investigating it now.

At present, as the facts stand, what Azam has committed is the grave crime of being tried and found guilty by the (social) media and by public perception.

Hence, the questions an astute observer should ask are:

Why now, when the issue of Azam’s shares occurred some six years ago?

Who is really behind the ubiquitous Twitterings, presenting itself as a whistleblower, that is clearly the job of well-paid cybertroopers to bring down certain individuals in the government?

The tweets have even managed to get the attention of an “investigative journalist” who merely “retweeted” in a more structured, formal essay, and having gained publication in an online media outfit is now facing a RM10 million defamation suit.

Could the timing be well set to explode just months before the 15th general election that we know will be intensely fought by major political parties, with outcomes likely to go any which way?

This year is also the year when grand high-profile corruption cases that garnered worldwide attention will likely see court verdicts.

We also know that the MACC under Azam has been investigating the corruption of politicians across the political divide, both from the opposition and the ruling party.

This civil servant made no political friends.

Enemies, plenty.

2022 is a most critical year for the shifting balance of power and what better way to create distrust of one of the most important government institutions?

Who gains from the removal of Azam?

Who gains from the creation of a trust deficit in the present government?

You can see the two forces coalescing into a single unified systematic attack to remove the chief commissioner and to cast doubts and suspicion of the anti-corruption institution.

Civil society, self-styled journalists and activists have their roles to play. They have a right to question the lack of transparency and accountability of government officers and agencies, but they need to be careful that they are not playing into the hands of those who have their own agendas, unless they also have agendas of their own.