Sunday, May 01, 2005

Controlled Media Could Cause Mass Deception

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta, Indonesia
Monday, March 8, 2004

By Thang D. NguyenProgram CoordinatorUnited in Diversity ForumJakarta

The media has become a weapon of mass deception. This has happened in two ways: The first is that governments have come to dominate the media, and the second is that too much freedom has made the media irresponsible.

The first case is quite Orwellian in that the media, especially the state-owned media, serves as governments’ obedient mouthpieces. For one thing, this means that news reports are government-friendly. But this also means they cover up scandals in which their bosses are at fault.

As an old saying has it, “never bite the hand that feeds you,” anyone who violates this rule will face many consequences: from the loss of their job to threats, imprisonment, family harassment and death. Because of overwhelming power of the “thought police”, many media agencies bite the bullet and hide truthful and objective information from the public.

There has, however, been one exception recently: the BBC’s reporting, much of which was done by the brave, controversial Andrew Gilligan, accusing Downing Street of ‘sexing up’ the Iraq dossier that led the UK into the U.S. war on Iraq. In January, the BBC’s ex-chairman Gavyn Davies and ex-director-general Greg Dyke quit their jobs in defense of the corporation’ s reporting independence.

Before announcing his resignation, Dyke sent an email to the BBC staff in which he wrote: “…the management of the BBC was heavily criticised [for the Gilligan reports]. We need closure to protect the future of the BBC, not for you or me but for the benefit of everyone out there. Throughout this affair my sole aim as director general of the BBC has been to defend our editorial independence and to act in the public interest.”

It is a shame that Dyke resigned; it is Prime Minister Tony Blair who should have resigned instead. It is also a shame that this is happening to the BBC, which has worldwide respect for its independent news services. It sounds paradoxical, but the reports on the Iraq war from the government-funded BBC were much more objective and truthful than the reports from the privately owned CNN or – much worse – Fox News.

The second case in which the media becomes a weapon of mass deception is when it fails to perform responsible journalism. What is responsible journalism? It is the responsibility of media professionals – whether they be reporters, correspondents, producers, editors, managing directors, chief executive officers, or chairmen – to ensure that the public receives accurate facts and objective information in a timely manner.

But more than that, responsible journalism means that media professionals are responsible for detecting, investigating and reporting news that has life-and-death impacts on the lives of people – hence the term investigative journalism.

Often associated with Enron-like cases, Lewinsky-like affairs, or Watergate-like scandals, investigative journalism seems to be disappearing, and some journalists have become irresponsible.

Under totalitarian, Communist, or other undemocratic societies in which the media is state-controlled or publicly funded, it might be understandable that, as much as journalists want to investigate and report truthful stories to the public, they cannot for fear that they or their families will be endangered by either the state, influential businesspeople, or other powers that be.

Sadly, however, irresponsible journalism is happening in democratic countries in which the media enjoys not only the right to report freely but also to investigate into and blow up scandals.
A case in point is the cover-up of and the much belated reports on the bird flu that has caused deaths and led to massive slaughter of millions of chickens throughout Asia. The outbreak first revealed itself as early as last August when thousands of chickens started to die in Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam, and has since spread to Cambodia, China, Japan, Laos, Pakistan, South Korea and now the U.S.

The Thai public was uninformed of this epidemic until the government ordered a cull of its infected chickens roughly two months after thousands of Thai chickens had already died of the flu.

Likewise, the Indonesian public was kept in the dark until the end of last month when the news was no longer concealable. The Indonesian government then went public with the bad news and ordered a mass cull of its chickens, after citing inadequate funds and insisting that culling would not be effective and doing it “would certainly reduce [its] poultry population drastically.”

Where was the media all this time? In Thailand, the theory is that the media are quite scared of the Thaksin government, which is influenced by powerful businesses such as the feed producer Charoen Pokphand Group (CP Group). But where does that leave the Indonesian media, which since the end of the Suharto era has gotten quite a lot of freedom of the press – if not too much?
If the media joins governments and their intelligence agencies in failing – intentionally or otherwise – to provide the public with timely, accurate, and truthful information, who else can we turn to?

When the media acts as governments’ tools of deception or are irresponsible, it is as dangerous as weapons of mass destruction.

These are personal views and do not necessarily represent the views of the United in Diversity Forum.


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