Troubling times for journalists

JAMAL Khashoggi (pic) need not have died. So too the 60 other journalists who have perished so far this year when trying to do their jobs.

Last week, the Time Warner Centre in New York had to be evacuated after the CNN office there received a package containing explosive material.

The United States, always priding itself as a beacon of democracy and the free press, is now under scrutiny. President Donald Trump has called “the fake news media” the enemy of the people. No US president has persistently labelled the media as such.

His war of attrition against journalists is unprecedented in the history of modern US.

It reminds me of the play by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, An Enemy of the People, written 136 years ago. There is a lot to learn from the play about truthfulness, sacrifice and betrayal.

Trump’s rhetoric is dangerous for it incites more than just distrust and hatred towards the media. Some may have brought the animosity to the next level.

As with the case of the pipe bomb sent to CNN’s New York office, it can be potentially deadly.

Similar packages have been sent to personalities that Trump loves to hate – former president Barack Obama and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, among others.

US politics today is unbelievably divisive. With just weeks to go before the midterm elections, Trump will not ease up on his attacks on the press and his political opponents – the Democrats – whom he calls villains or worse.

The fact that Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian who was living in the US, was murdered in his own country’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, is shocking to say the least. It is unthinkable that he had to face such a fate.

Whoever was behind his death certainly failed to understand the repercussions of the crime. The killing is heinous and barbaric. The Saudi government must do all it can to find the culprits responsible.

Journalists die doing their jobs. Many have died in conflict areas. They understand how vulnerable they are.

Anyone covering Afghanistan and Syria today will know that fatalities among journalists are high in those countries.

Even as Afghanistan is trying to recover from years of civil wars and upheavals, journalists are still being targeted.

Many have died in suicide bombing cases or have been killed by warring parties. But many journalists soldier on, regardless. Journalism is a risky business.

The late Said Zahari, the former editor of Utusan Melayu in the 1960s, who was incarcerated for 17 long years under the Internal Security Act, never regretted choosing the vocation. His only regret was that politicians used the state apparatus to silence him and his colleagues.

He paid a hefty price for his principles. He was 35 when arrested and 52 when released. He never wavered from the belief that journalist independence is paramount for any democracy.

The late Tan Sri A. Samad Ismail was a nationalist who also endured many years of incarceration. He was a true-blue journalist fighting for what he believed was right. He was a fighter to the last. The country owes him, Said Zahari and others an apology for unfairly treating them.

Journalists have been known to be jailed for the slightest excuse. Some have lost their jobs. Many are harassed and threatened. There are many brave souls among them who dare to speak up while others suffer in silence.

However, there are times when the press is looked upon as merely an extension of the state’s propaganda office. Some have simply become part of the system.

Free press is a utopia, some would argue. There is no such thing as a free media, according to others. Someone famously said freedom of the press belongs only to those who own it.

Undeniably, the Malaysian experience is one with a chequered past. For some years, the mainstream media was pandering to the tango of the ruling elites.

I even argued in a piece in this newspaper (published on Oct 1) that the media is complicit in the 1MDB scandal. It ignored the red flags and chose not to question the official line.

The media practitioners woke up after GE14 on May 9, realising something new was happening. Perhaps it is a dawn of a new era in media.

The new-found freedom is welcomed. The press has a role to play. The Pakatan Harapan government promises to free the press. Journa-lists have reasons to rejoice.

But how far the freedom is guaranteed has yet to be seen. The government must make good the promise to abolish some of the laws that stifle freedom of expressions and free press. Let’s see that happen first.

As argued by a character in Ibsen’s play, “the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone”.

In the case of Jamal Khashoggi and many like him in the media, Ibsen’s words certainly ring true.

Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. The views expressed here are entirely his own.