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The Flipside

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Show some respect for the Fourth Estate

IT was exactly five months ago that a female colleague and I were physically assaulted by several members of the infamous Red Shirts group when covering a Bersih 5.0 convoy in Kuala Selangor.

The incident sticks in my memory as if it were yesterday. What was supposed to be a routine out-of-town assignment for us turned into an ugly and frightening encounter on the evening of Oct 15.

We were streaming the Bersih convoy’s journey on Facebook Live as it flagged off from Sekinchan and made several stop-overs before proceeding to Kuala Selangor, where a ceramah was scheduled that night.

But things took a turn for the worse when the “yellow shirts” of Bersih, who were distributing fliers at a hypermarket in Kuala Selangor, were confronted by the Red Shirts.

A brief, civil exchange between the opposing groups escalated quickly into a physical scuffle and caught in the middle of it was my colleague, who was assaulted for simply trying to do her job.

One of them even grabbed her by the collar, while another accused her of working for an alternative news portal.

This was all being streamed on The Star Online’s Facebook page as it happened, so there was no denying the thuggish acts which unfolded before us.

When I tried to defend my colleague, I too was threatened, pushed around, and hit on the head. A videographer from our team was also harassed and forced to delete all the footage he had recorded on his phone.

Although the scuffle was eventually brought to a halt by the police, our mental ordeal was not over. We spent seven long hours at the police station that night – from lodging reports, having our statements taken several times, to identifying the suspects in a parade – before finally being allowed to go home.

Most of you are probably wondering why I’ve only now chosen to recount the events of that day. Well, there are a few reasons for this.

After months of silence, during which we were reluctantly prepared to move on and let bygones be bygones, we were granted a modicum of justice two weeks ago.

My female colleague, who arguably bore the brunt of the physical harassment by the anti-Bersih group, received a message from the investigating police officer informing her that two of the accused in the case were charged and had pleaded guilty.

The pair were sentenced to a week’s jail and fined RM1,500 on March 3, a decision that left us feeling slightly vindicated, knowing that the attackers had not gotten off scot-free.

It was far from a heavy sentence; but at the very least, it defended our rights as media practitioners and sent a message that such attacks should not and would not be tolerated.

Apart from its personal significance to my colleagues and me, this case is also relevant because it reflects the bigger scenario we currently find ourselves in.

Recent events, both locally and abroad, have shone the spotlight back onto the treatment of journalists in the field.

Take Donald Trump’s version of America, for instance. Phrases like “fake news” and “dishonest press” are accusations coming out of the United States President’s administration on a daily basis.

The kind of abuse in this case has been mostly verbal and news organisations have remained steadfast in the face of unwarranted criticism, but it is still a reflection of the increasingly hostile environment present-day journalists have to work in.

In Malaysia, fellow journalists will agree with me when I say that not a day goes by where politicians don’t accusingly ask us “which media are you from?” when answering our question, somehow implying that certain outlets are out to make them look bad.

It is also common for some media organisations to be categorically banned from covering an event or press conference, and sadly we are not batting enough eyelids to change that outcome.

Such behaviour ultimately breeds contempt and discrimination against the press, and will give rise to similar incidents like the one my colleagues and I faced five months ago.

We can only take comfort in the solidarity and support shown to us by fellow journalists and Malaysians in the incident’s aftermath.

It reinforces my tiny belief that any form of attack against not just the media but all citizens, will be roundly condemned. And that we can defeat the bullies in our midst each and every time.

  • Online reporter Akil Yunus believes the world would be a better place without politics, but also a lot duller, something he addresses in The Flipside.

Tags / Keywords: Akil Yunus , columnist

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