Responsible journalism. Or not.

One of the many problems besetting Malaysian politics at the moment is the extraordinary propensity of many Malaysians to believe what they are told. Any theory, no matter how outrageous or unlikely the senario, is going to get instant believers. Possibly this is an outcome of having raised generations of meek children educated to believe all they are told and never question their betters (i.e. parents and teachers). If there is one thing the Malaysian education system has not done well, it is to create citizens who have a basic grasp of critical thinking. But that is by the way.

Two burning issues claim the public’s attention at the moment, taking precedence even over the sharp rise in fuel prices. The first is the gruesome murder two years ago of a Mongolian model with a family name that would look right at home in a fantasy novel. She was shot, then blown up, allegedly by two highly connected policemen – the real issue as far as the public is concerned being who (if anyone) told them to do it, rather than did they do it at all.

This case supposedly has everything – sex, money, arms dealing (submarines actually), beautiful Oriental women, a private eye chasing the women even as he was on the case, allegedly crooked cops and corrupt politicians, stolen C4 explosives, a scheming wife allegedly attending a murder for nefarious reasons – this one is about as ridiculous as you can get, innocent fall guys, conspiracy in high places, jealousy…um, what did I leave out? Oh yes, diamonds. I’m surprised there’s not black magic in there somewhere as well. Maybe I missed that one. Bloggers, of course, are having a field day.

The second issue hogging the airspace is whether a certain married opposition politician does in fact hanker after getting his sex in places he shouldn’t (according to the archaic criminal laws of the country) as well as hanker after being the Prime Minister (supposedly to take place by September 15th). Even the United States had something to say about this one.

And honestly, no fantasy-cum-mystery-cum-whodunit writer could possibly have thought up all the theories being bandied about at the moment to account for the few facts known about either of the cases. And this being Malaysia, it was inevitable that the gossip was going to link the two cases, which has happened.

What really riled me this morning was a sentence or two on the front page of The Star newspaper, as follows:

The private investigator(…)has made a statutory declaration alleging that Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak had a relationship with murdered Mongolian Altantuya Shaariibuu.

That statement, directly under the newspaper’s main headline, is untrue. The private investigator made no such allegation. In his declaration he said he was told (by one of the men charged with the murder, who had employed him as a PI) that there was such a relationship.

What kind of reporter/newspaper doesn’t see the difference between saying:

X is true” and “I was told X“??

To make the writer’s misstatement even more obvious, the same newspaper quotes (on p12) the private investigator’s lawyer stressing that the statutory declaration was “not a statement of truth” but rather what had been said to the private investigator. “Whether true or not – he doesn’t know for sure. He just told what was told to him.”

So, was this a slip of the pen or a deliberate distortion on the part of the newspaper? It is the kind of thing that adds to the wild tales circulating in Malaysia at the moment.

I haven’t linked to anything in this post. Mostly because there is just so much out there and I have no idea which versions are closest to the truth. Take your pick.


Responsible journalism. Or not. — 4 Comments

  1. Distortion of the truth in newspapers is not confined to Malaysia. I remember being involved on the edges of a murder suicide near where I lived and the story which came out in the papers had no relation to the event. Not everyone questions what they read in the Western world either. If its on TV or in the papers, it must be true. It is a shocking truth about modern society. Same goes for the internet. Thank God for Snopes.

  2. Responsible journalism is kind of like saying military intelligence, there’s a certain degree of irony in it.

    But distorting or ’embroidering’ the facts adds sensationalism and sells stories … and unfortunately it appears that the greater part of the industry is driven by the obsession to sell papers and capture audiences (a gossip by any other name…).

  3. very nicely said, glenda. all the ingredients for a great novel plot are there. trouble is most malaysians (who i would say don’t beleive what they are told and least of all by the newspapers!) are feeling pretty sick and disgusted

  4. You are right, Sharon. I should have said that Malaysians’ lack of critical thinking means that some of them are prepared to believe the most outrageous explanations over the official ones – and who can blame them? When the truth has been concealed by years of censorship, it leaves you disinclined to accept official versions, even if they are perhaps true. And how are we to know what the truth is any more?

    But it does alarm me that some of the public have learned little from all this – they are as prepared to believe the most outrageous rumours as they are disinclined to believe official explanations. Seems to me, the past should have made us all chary of believing anything unless it is backed up by facts.

    We need a sceptical electorate, willing to see results for themselves, not a gullible public accepting whatever story (official or otherwise) is doing the rounds at the moment. We need to be critical thinkers.

    I guess this is all the “lid off the pot” syndrome. When you relax censorship and make debate more open, when more people learn to use the internet, you get more of the truth but you also get more of the dross. People just need to realise that.

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