The bigger publications with deeper pockets are naturally the main targets. A myriad of people – including businessmen, politicians and advertisers – who feel they can get some reward from such suits are ever ready to pounce. It is not always about reputation.
But journalists must be ready to face the legal consequences of what they have written. If journalists talk about press freedom, they should also remember the rights of the subjects they write about.
In Malaysia, the hands of Malaysian journalists are tied, although under the present administration there is more room for press freedom.
From the annual permit renewal to a host of other media-related laws, reporters and readers have long complained that the Malaysian press should be freer.
These laws have become obsolete because of the Internet. A new medium with almost no censorship has emerged and the authorities must understand, and even learn to deal with, the new media.
Over the past few years, journalists in mainstream newspapers have tried to adapt themselves to this new environment.
Today’s newspapers offer more interactivity by incorporating elements of the mobile telephone and the Internet in the print version. They have added podcasts and videos to their news websites as added multimedia services.
Not only is the competition among newspapers getting tougher, journalists working from their offices also have to contend with faceless bloggers pounding away on their keyboards from home.
Some like Jeff Ooi, Ahirudin Atan @ Rocky and Patrick Teoh put their names on their blogs but many others don’t. But that does not mean they cannot be traced.
Jeff Ooi and Rocky have made a name for themselves with their fearless comments and even breaking news. They have a huge following among Malaysians and, in the case of Screenshots, there are even advertisements, which is unprecedented in Malaysian blog journalism.
Their blogging has made Malaysian democracy more meaningful although not everyone agrees with their views. They should not be regarded as dissenters because democracy is about tolerance.
They have been bold enough to bring up issues that mainstream newspapers have not done.
It is unfortunate that many Malaysians only look at the political scene in black and white.
It would be meaningless if Malaysians were to agree to everything our political leaders say. We would be doing a great disservice to the country’s leadership if we do not speak up.
Unlike newspapers, where journalists can consult each other on the legal implications of stories, the one-man show depends entirely on the blogger.
But political bloggers, as opposed to teenage bloggers who write about their lifestyles and love lives, must realise that they cannot “print and be damned”.
Bloggers and journalists are alike even if the medium is different. They cannot claim that their right of expression has been denied when they are sued.
Many people who have been named in some blogs regard themselves as victims. Lives have been destroyed because of unsubstantiated reports on these blogs. The false news may be forgotten after a certain time but the damage has been done.
Ironically, these irresponsible bloggers are still hailed as heroes even after being proven wrong eventually.
Bloggers must be responsible enough to remove malicious postings from readers, some of whom use false names because they have an axe to grind. Surely, libellous and racist remarks have nothing to do with freedom of expression.
If newspaper editors can refuse to print such letters or e-mail from readers, bloggers should exercise such discretion.
Credit should be given when it is due. It should not be just a case of hentam (bashing) only. I believe that many of our bloggers, too, value fairness.
Their popularity does not give them the right to hurt innocent people, particularly the family members of their targets who have nothing to do with the bitter politics they engage in. Neither does it make sense to target one or two personalities nearly every day.
A few bloggers seem to have political ambitions, which makes a mockery of what they claim to strive for.
Journalists and bloggers believe they are committed to making Malaysia a better country. Journalists are certainly not the highest paid professionals in town while bloggers have committed their own money but both believe passionately in what they are doing.
The feuding parties need to stop at some point to re-evaluate what they are doing in order to bring down the political temperature.