On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Need to tackle the bad press problem

There is too much at stake. Malaysia needs to maintain
goodwill with its neighbours and keep its standing in the international
community at the same time.

But it cannot be deaf to the sentiments of the majority of Malaysians, who want
to see the immediate deportation of all illegal immigrants.

Public feelings aside, the Malaysian Government is fully aware of the long-term
political, social and economic implications of allowing in uncontrolled large
numbers of foreigners.

Over the past week, there have been allegations of torture by illegal
immigrants who were sent home after rioting at various detention camps.

Some have even claimed that the authorities tried to poison them.

Detention camps, we must accept, can become tense even in the most reasonable
humane conditions.

The camps are not supposed to be five-star hotels and neither can we foolishly
expect detainees to behave like boy scouts.

To complicate matters, some Indonesian illegal immigrants have now claimed
political refugee status.

Others produced documents to the foreign press to show they had working permits
and were being unfairly sent back to Indonesia.

No one asked whether these documents could be forgeries which, as we know, are
easily obtainable.

In this age of speedy information, we should not pretend that these negative
reports, many of which are based on mere allegations, have not been printed and

A lot of such material have appeared and discussed at length in news and chat
groups on the Internet.

The availability of cable news reports also means Malaysians and their
neighbours have access to breaking news.

They have plenty of options now. Regional magazines are freely available while
international newspapers are printed locally, testing the competitiveness of
the local media further.

Another major item for the international media was the temple-mosque dispute in

Singapore's Straits Times, for example, kept referring to the dispute as a
clash between Malays and Hindus.

Such misreporting gave the impression that it was a racial problem when it wasn't
but if we do not correct these factual errors, then they will be accepted as
the truth.

Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Abdul Rahim Noor must be commended for his
handling of the media in both cases.

In the case of the riots at the detention camps, he held two conferences to
update the press on the actual number of casualties.

But that did not stop the foreign press from going to town with premature news
items quoting unconfirmed figures, with one report stating that as many as 30
Indonesians were killed.

Fanning rumours, one political party faxed its statements to newspaper offices,
basing its information on hearsay.

In such circumstances, it has become necessary for us to quickly counter
misinformation in all areas of the media.

We have to point out that Malaysians, including the family of the policeman who
was hacked to death by the armed detainees, have human rights, too.

Let's be proactive instead of being defensive and evasive. There's nothing to
hide here. The foreign media must differentiate fact, rumour, hearsay,
speculation and allegation.

Where do we draw the line if we have to succumb to international pressure on
political affiliations for illegal immigrants?

We will see Myanmars on our doorstep claiming to be supporters of Aung San Suu
Kyi or Chinese illegal immigrants saying they are dissidents.

In Penang, the IGP correctly held a press conference, even after midnight, to
provide details of the incident, quashing baseless talk on the grapevine.

A more efficient public relations technique needs to be found in this era of
information technology.

Our bureaucrats have been a flop when it comes to dealing with the press. They
have been unable to cope with the pace of modern media.

The authorities, in their failure to realise the importance of stopping
rumour-mongers from having a field day, have sometimes unwittingly undermined
the credibility of the more responsible local press in the process.

For example, national news agency Bernama decided to verify the actual number
of casualties in the Semenyih detention camp riot before flashing the
information over the wires.

The foreign press, which based their earlier reports on unconfirmed figures,
broke the news ahead of Bernama. This has jeopardised the reliability of
Bernama as it was seen to have been beaten by foreign news agencies in its own

In the long run, people would rather depend on foreign agencies than the local

It's time for the authorities to wake up to the powerful impact of modern
information dissemination through computers and other communication

Last week, one Kedah executive councillor told the state assembly that he was
"monitoring the operations" of cybercafes in Kedah.

More perplexing was his statementthat the state government was aware that
cybercafes were similar to video arcades.

It's obvious the honourable state exco member doesn't know much about computers
and has never stepped into a cybercafe, where teenagers are more interested in
chat groups than anything else.

The Parliament website, for example, was last updated six months ago. Setting
up a website is one thing; it is equally important to make it attractive,
imaginative, interactive and current.

Welcome to the cyber age where information and misinformation is now available
at the click of the mouse.