On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Trying times, certainly, for journalists

The New Straits Times, which was issued a show-cause letter
by the Internal Security Ministry to explain why action should not be taken
against the newspaper for printing a cartoon deemed offensive to Muslims, has
apologised unconditionally and the Government has accepted it.

For journalists, there is no reason to rejoice when a rival
newspaper runs foul of the authority. Regardless of what newspaper a journalist
may work for, the same thing can happen to any publication.

Editors have to take responsibility for what is published in
their newspapers but these days, a newspaper can run up to 300 pages or more,
comprising the various sections from news to business, lifestyle, metro to

Great care is taken by the editors to ensure that there is
no offensive news relating to race or religion in the news section but what
about those sections within the paper deemed the least sensitive?

I do not wish to refer to any newspaper but merely to shed
light on how a newspaper functions in a general way.

In most cases, it is the lifestyle section, where the
cartoons, music, fashion and celebrity stories appear. When there is a slip-up,
it is often painful because as editors, they have to take responsibility. But
carelessness is often the only reason. There is no malice, no agenda and
certainly no disrespect to anyone.

But in this time and age, there is no room for any
oversight. A newspaper these days not only has thousands of copies in print,
but the news is also posted on the website where its reach just multiplies in
cyberspace. Even if a person does not subscribe to the paper in question,
chances are he can get a copy of it via the Net.

Unlike other professions and businesses, the punishment
meted out on journalists and newspapers appear tough, even harsh. Editors often
have to take the rap for mistakes made by their subordinates.

Politicians, including ministers, also make mistakes and
sometimes, the failures and fiascos are even bigger.

I understand the feelings of uncertainty faced by my fellow
journalists. I, too, lost my job as a reporter for five months when The Star
lost its permit in October 1987, together with Sin Chew Jit Poh and Watan, a
Bahasa Malaysia tabloid which has ceased operations since then.

Those were difficult times as we had to go through
Christmas, the New Year and Chinese New Year without a job. Many employers were
reluctant to hire us as they believed we would get back our licences. But with
bills to pay, their optimism did not help our morale.

Looking back, we learnt much from what happened during the
149 days of The Star's closure, particularly in handling race relations in Malaysia.
It is natural for me, having gone through it, to be affected. More so, for us,
who had to cover the political gatherings, where racial emotions were running

The political circumstances of the past few weeks, leading
to the actions against the media, are entirely different. The irony is that the
storm started in Denmark
but the publication of the cartoons here, probably due to slip-ups by
journalists in the production section, had offended many Muslims.

There are plenty of lessons to learn, chief of which is that
not everyone is as tolerant and liberal as we like to think. Some of the
published items may seem harmless to us but can be deemed unacceptable to

Race, religion and language are no laughing matter and that
is reinforced in the mind of every reporter who joins a newspaper.

There is no need to apologise over this rule in Malaysia.
Press freedom is not about hurting the feelings of any particular faith or

The experience that my journalist friends are going through
is something that media houses have to reflect seriously on.

The media in Malaysia
walks on a tightrope – there are sufficient laws that already make the job
difficult but now, there are calls to set up a council to regulate our work.

But the painful reality is that, while the serious readers
clamour for more thought-provoking articles, they do not necessarily represent
the majority of the reading public.

The best-selling newspapers in Malaysia
are those that carry news about celebrity scandals, sex websites, crime and gay

One Internet news website that emphasises on human rights
and democracy found its readership slipping when it decided to charge a minor
sum for its services. It must have woken up the newsmen there.

I believe that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad
Badawi is committed to a vibrant, honest and constructive media and that this
is good for Malaysia.

We become journalists because we honestly believe that our
work will make the country better, even if we have to work within these rules.

Or else, we would have looked for a job that is less
stressful, and which probably pays more.