Juggling rights and the media

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 29 Aug 2004

Behind the Headlines by BUNN NAGARA.

WHEN Suhakam proposed setting up a Media Complaints Working Committee on Monday, it had ventured into unfamiliar territory loaded with issues and problems it might not have anticipated. 

Suhakam Commissioner Prof Datuk Mohd Hamdan Adnan said the focus would be on the print media as the electronic media already had stringent broadcasting regulations – as if print did not also have to live with various tough regulations. The least regulated media today are on the Internet, and curiously nothing has been said of that. 

Hamdan added that the working committee would provide an avenue for aggrieved parties to bring up grouses, clearly emphasising a private prerogative to complain about the media over the media’s prerogative to report issues even in the face of private vested interests. Are Malaysian print media already so free to report and comment in any way they please, and do they therefore habitually offend innocent parties? 

Asked about any real clout which Suhakam might have to require interested parties even to attend hearings, the answer given was that clauses existed in the Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code for that. If so, these codes should suffice in attending to any media excesses without the intervention of Suhakam, which remains a modest-sized body with limited resources playing only a consultative and advisory role. 

Hamdan argued that Suhakam “has a right” to focus on the media in this way, but the reality is rather that no particular area like media activity has specifically been proscribed. Yet this does not make Suhakam the best or only body to initiate a national media council of sorts. 

Suhakam’s mandate is national human rights, while any right of purportedly aggrieved parties to complain about the media might fall into such categories as civil rights, social rights or cultural rights. This is why complaints by private parties in such forms as libel constitute civil cases. 

Human rights, however, pertain to basic and universal entitlements of persons in respect of their status as human beings, required to be observed, respected and protected by states and state agencies. Human rights violations typically comprise genocide, summary executions, torture, slavery and other forms of inhuman treatment. 

Both the observance and violation of human rights relate to official policy and action, which is why Suhakam itself has been mandated by the state. The media are in no position to mete out such punishments, short of exaggerated comparisons through metaphor or hyperbole.  

If only to safeguard its own credibility and effectiveness, Suhakam would be better employed presiding over core human rights concerns. Its rationale of spotlighting arbitrary and repressive laws, questionable modes of arrest, official harassment and unlawful treatment of migrant labour or prison detainees remains to be addressed fully and satisfactorily. 

Straying from these core areas might suggest that Suhakam has acknowledged the impossibility of its task, while spreading itself thin would produce a shortfall in its performance. Extra- neous activity would be seen as a diversion, an escape and a retreat from its intended functions that would not help Suhakam’s cause or authority or legitimacy in any way. 

To be even-handed, complaints against the media inhibiting free(r) media expression should also be targeted. Some complaints may not be legitimate in lacking truthfulness, accuracy and justification, particularly when pursued with a mischievous or malicious intent. 

The proposed working committee appears to perform only a media ombudsman’s role – but this narrow brief is neither the original purpose of the earlier media council idea, nor is it part of Suhakam’s role. In any case, the ombudsman’s function is better performed by an ombudsman. 

Suhakam now risks being buffeted by the demands of certain vocal groups and individuals, regardless of merit, representing whatever declared or undeclared agenda. But Suhakam needs to be above this clamour if it is to preserve its own dignity and efficacy. 

A basic question is whether a media council of sorts is such an overriding necessity, regardless of practicality and effectiveness. In Britain, for example, the Press Council has for many long years been stuck in the rut of a toothless watchdog against such media excesses as chequebook journalism, suspended in self-perpetuity largely for its own sake. 

A more fundamental issue here may be that of making citizens more aware of their rights in respect of the Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code.  

The media can work with Suhakam in this respect, but not in constructing new harnesses or muzzles for media practice. 

Whether or not Suhakam’s proposed foray into media activity was calculated to impress, the quality of its work is not improved by increasing its quantity in non-core areas. It should resist an exaggerated sense of its own importance that comes with overextending its own purpose and function.  

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