Horrifying headlines

  • Opinion
  • Monday, 16 Sep 2013

When a gun outlives its war, it is sure to find a new master to wield it, just as surely as a shelter built in fear will one day be a prison.

HEADLINES have become horrifying. I mean actively fear mongering, bogeyman stuff. From pre-election promises and headlines obscured by haze, national news has moved on from loud-hailers and inhalers to a blow by blow account of the war against crime.

They tell of an impending police state, the force being beefed up, senior officers posing with rifles as they triumph like hunters over their recent slaughter of suspected gang members, talk of introducing new preventive and Rico-like laws and even digging up archaic ones.

Have you been frightened by the headlines about the thousands of gangsters being let loose on the streets, the harsh price for repealing the Emergency Ordinance (EO) 1969?

If you follow the math of some leaders, there are a quarter million hardcore criminals wandering about, and they’ve been active, according to the many stories about dubious people shooting and being shot at by fellow dubious people.

Mamak-shop wisdom says you should be terrified of “normal” parang robberies but unfazed about being gunned down, as you’ve got to be “someone” to be worth shooting.

How effective these fearsome headlines are.

Just a few months ago, letters from readers would have chastised the use of preventive laws and overzealous prosecution that comes off more as persecution. Now the public and politicians are cheering for a rehash of EO, since apparently the country is in a state of war against crime.

Transparency International-Malaysia president Datuk Akhbar Satar recently accused the local media of sensationalising their reports to portray a worrying state of crime in the country.

In defence of writers, National Union of Journalists secretary-general Schave Jerome de Rozario replied that reporters merely report “what we see and what is being said”.

I’m inclined to agree with de Rozario, we tell it like we see it. But as life imitates art, it oftentimes seems reality is in a feedback loop with the papers.

Before sex-bloggers Alvin and Vivian were busted for their bah kut teh prank, chapter 15 of the Penal Code for offences relating to religion was a rarely used tool.

The mean sister to the Sedition Act, however, got her day in the spotlight soon after with dog groomers, resort owners and painters being slapped with variations of causing religious disharmony.

All thanks to the public who found this old pitchfork for the witch-hunting season.

But that’s the thing about laws in Malaysia, they often outlive the men of high ideals who draft them to address the ills of the nation, in their day.

The Sedition Act as we know it today was borne of similar circumstance, to combat domestic terrorists and threats to national unity.

Originally just for curbing those who would challenge the Government, post-May 13, the very Constitution was amended to enhance the Act.

To misquote Dylan, the country was young, with Good on its side. Who knew the nation would not outgrow the need for restricted freedom of speech?

Another charming law introduced in the shadow of the race riots was the EO.

It shows how dangerous times breed dangerous laws. The institutionalised fear of May 13 and racial unrest is something of a masterpiece in this country.

It appears that there is no need to understand the circumstance, just demonise anyone that appears to be an instigator. To hate and to fear, to run and to hide, and accept it all bravely, with Good on our side.

By this point, it would be a cheap shot to mention box office bust Tanda Putera, a film so “essential” that Perkasa wants it shown in schools, TVs and Parliament. But if that is the launching pad approved by the Government for discussion of a traumatic event, then it is a slippery and ill-advised stepping stone. It’s neither the movie Malaysia deserves, nor the one it needs right now.

As an optimist, I’d like to think these laws were not made with abuse in mind. Who would have enough foresight to think that a tool to fight communists would work equally well against politicians and gang members?

But when a gun outlives its war, it is sure to find a new master to wield it. And a glance through the papers would show it has sometimes found civilians to mow down in the absence of armed enemies.

After this feverish crime wave breaks, who will the new EO crack down on?

Before you blame the media for launching the imagination of mobs on the endless possibilities of our prosecution’s laws, remember that the Malaysian media is still on a short leash.

According to the 2013 World Press Freedom index, Malaysia is categorised in the second lowest category along with our third world South-East Asian brothers, falling 23 places to its lowest-ever ranking of 145th among 179 countries.

That places us behind bastions of free speech, including Libya and Zimbabwe.

We’re still ahead of Singapore, at least.

That means the media has to watch its mouth, as others are watching too. Before you get scared by what you read, consider what the consequence is of giving in to fear.

A shelter built in fear will one day be a prison.

If media is to reflect the truth, stop feeding us your bile, your hate, your small-minded garbage. Share with us the Malaysia you want to read about.

The Malaysia all of us can agree we want to be part of.

Qishin finds Spiderman corny, but believes that headlines and the news agents that propagate them do possess great power. Share your better Malaysia with him at @Qishin on twitter or qishin.tariq@thestar.com.my. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

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