AT long last, a media council in Malaysia may be taking shape in a couple of months. The idea that such a body will effectively serve the interests of the local media industry has been bandied about for decades.
There has been no shortage of opinions touting the virtues of such a council, including the ability to promote and regulate media ethics and uphold professionalism through the raising of standards. And not forgetting upholding media freedom in the country.
After many false starts, perhaps the time is now ripe as several well-meaning and concerned individuals have rallied round to put the proposition forward into more concrete terms. It is certainly heartening that the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) and Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism & Human Rights (MCCHR) have spearheaded efforts to hold a National Consultation for a Malaysia Media Council in Kuala Lumpur.
According to CIJ and MCCHR, the present landscape appears to be more conducive. The present government too is supportive of such a body. Therefore, it is timely for the stakeholders concerned to take stock of the current initiatives by the media industry and civil society organisations to establish a media council. What has been heart-warming is that the advocates have been very passionate, articulate and eloquent about the proposed media council. I believe the proponents would leave no stone unturned on the matter and be thorough in addressing almost every facet of its formation, especially in terms of self-regulation, raising professionalism, promoting a code of ethics among journalists and investigating breaches of this code.
It would also be pertinent for the media council to keep the channels of communication open between the media and the public as well as the government. This is to allow the body to become the reference point for media dialogue and perhaps be able to speak with one voice for added coherence, if need be.
In the past, there had been some disquiet among media practitioners and media owners when it was perceived that the authorities seemed to want to have a say on how a media council should be run. As such, there was an impasse.
There was also dissension as to how such a body should be funded, whether the money to run it should come from the government so that things can get moving without any financial hiccups or should the funds be solely from media organisations to avoid a conflict of interest. Some journalists, who may have cherished unbridled media freedom even opined that they would not be part of any self-governing body if the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) was not repealed in view of the wide powers given under the Act for the authorities to act with regard to news content.
All these relevant concerns have been repeatedly aired before but no one seemed to have been able to take the bull by the horns, so to speak. But now, it appears that there is greater clarity and traction for action. Since the 1970s, some of my well-meaning colleagues who have since migrated to academia have been advocating for the establishment of such a body. Given that they have been on both sides of the fence, they are firm advocates for its formation, especially in helping to lift the standards of Malaysian journalism.
In 1999, when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was the country’s fourth prime minister, more than 900 journalists had petitioned him to repeal the PPPA before initiatives for setting up a media council could take place. Then in 2003, the National Union of Journalists conducted a survey among its members on the formation of a media council and 73.2 per cent supported its establishment while 67.6 per cent felt that it could promote greater press freedom.
Fast-forward to March 2019, the Institute of Journalists, Malaysia took a poll among 47 journalists and nearly 60 per cent replied that a media council was necessary to observe the Malaysian media.
Besides the aforementioned issues, there has also been constant debate on the role and powers of the proposed media council. Questions have arisen as to what penalties can the media council impose if an editor, reporter or media organisation was found to have transgressed the law or its code of ethics. And how wide ranging would its power of arbitration be? Or how to deal with frivolous complaints at the slightest hint of provocation raised by some think-skinned individuals? Or when some nosy and unconnected parties, who, in the name of public interest, decide to stir up a firestorm on so-called poor standards of reporting, discrimination or even sensationalism? Or should the media council act like a tribunal for complaints? There are also burning questions as to its composition, who should be running the show, and how it is going to be run.
Perhaps it should also be fitting for the media council to be able to call on all parties concerned into account as a check-and-balance against abuse or misconduct. Whether it is a watchdog or not, it certainly helps to keep tabs on integrity and common shared values, good conduct or the lack of it. And monitor areas like higher professional and ethical standards, greater gender inclusivity and protection of journalists, to name a few.
Debate on such public interest issues like a media council may continue to be robust and wide-open but its proponents should have the stomach and stamina for its eventual fruition, no matter how prickly they may be. Besides the better political climate, things are also looking up as there is now a prime minister who is more open towards an improved reform agenda for the media.
The road ahead may be fraught with thorny obstacles but as Matshona Dhliwayo, a Canadian-based motivator, said: “Thorns do not keep a rose from blooming, neither should obstacles keep you from success.”
The writer is former CEO & EIC of Bernama