Press Distortions & Credibility–Quo Vadis MMA?

Dr David KL Quek

dquek@pc.jaring.my

"Precision of communication is important, more important than ever, in our era of hair-trigger balances, when a false, or misunderstood word may create as much disaster as a sudden thoughtless act."

James Thurber in Lanterns & Lances: Friends, Romans, Countrymen, Lend Me Your Muffs.

Abraham Lincoln has been credited as having said that you can fool some of the people, all the time, all the people some of the time, but never––all the people, all the time.

This could now be the ambivalent scenario surrounding our association vis-a-vis the press, following the publication of grossly distorted and slanted stories, purportedly originating from the MMA. This, of course refers to the timely press statement on the alleged arsenic poisoning of the former Deputy Prime Minister while in prison, by the President on behalf of the MMA.

For sure, this type of ingenuous interpretation by the media or its agencies, can only serve to undermine one's belief and trust in the local press, which is already wallowing in its lowest ebb of credibility.

Unfortunately, this printed misrepresentation had unleashed a growing tirade against the MMA leadership from doctors and other citizens alike. The bulk of these acrimonious brickbats are from the world wide web pages. Dozens of the more vocal amongst our physicians have severely condemned the so-called pronouncements of the President, decrying his perceived political bias.

That we should have become so ensnared into this spider's web of deceit and distortion of facts and patent fabrications, is a sad reminder as to how the barons of the powerful mass media can shape and cast their long political shadows...

One continues to wonder at how low the country's newsmakers have stooped in disseminating and propagating falsehood and deceit––all under the guise of political expediency.

While one can understand the right and entitlement of the press corps to individual beliefs––political or otherwise––does this give them the unbridled license to obfuscate, to fabricate, to lie, even? Is there no decency and ethics left? Is our moral compass so wrecked that it has now become buried with the already crumbling and sinking foundations of the hallowed institutions of our Malaysian society?

No wonder then, that rising numbers of Malaysians are becoming increasingly cynical and disbelieving of the mainstream press. To be sure, there are probably still many out there who perhaps, choose to accept as biblical truths, whatever issuance that are spewed forth from these powerful organs of information (or disinformation) as the sad case may be.

To be fair, not all newspapers are misleading, or even purposely deceitful––many parts are probably reliable and factual. But nowadays, the tricky part is discerning which is which? Perhaps one can justifiably ask, which can now be trusted, and whom do we now believe?

Ironically, many of us can only guess at the relative veracity of the endless streams of news and information which break the surface daily––hour on hour, even minute on minute. In reality, many people have very limited access to other alternative sources of information and news, other than the mainstream press. Hence the power of the latter to directly influence opinion or shape directions of belief and bias. Hence, the power of propaganda and the press. Therefore, the purveyors of such news should rightfully have an even greater responsibility to ensure fair and accurate reporting.

While the internet is becoming increasingly perceived as an alternate source of information and news, it cannot be a given that everything in there, is accurate. In fact, it is known that much "info" there, are unvetted, unsolicited, and uncollaborated, and may indeed be absolute rubbish. Having said that, there can be no denying that it is increasingly looked upon as an alternative medium for information and news.

In this socio-political climate of no-holds-barred engagement among feuding sides, is it surprising that we all hanker for more divergent avenues of viewpoints, opinions and expectant truths?

Thus, it is not surprising that the world wide web has usurped the position as a more believable medium for information. Undoubtedly, this domain has become arguably the preferred source for some––the conventional perception being that here in a milieu of relative anonymity, influential and alternate viewpoints can be made without fear or favour, and with appropriate due diligence––without the censor's knife. Still, one has to be as vigilant as possible because internet distortions or fabrications can be as rampant as the mainstream media.

How then can one become more discerning and educated as to the accuracy or truthfulness of any information, these days?

Clearly, this is becoming increasingly difficult, but not impossible. One has to be more discriminating and adopt a healthier dose of skepticism. One needs to cultivate a more careful and critical approach. It probably pays to double check on as many issues and storylines as possible, and look for consistencies or otherwise, which cannot be fudged or faked, or which are patently false. Of course, careful manipulation by clever unscrupulous newsmakers can always fool some of us, some of the time––but certainly, not all of us, all the time, however.

So, in the context of the recent distortion of MMA's stand by the press, what can the MMA do? Should the MMA boycott the press? Should we retreat back into our cocoon of safe issues, tightly bound by its circumscribed limits of only dealing with direct health concerns and medical agendas?

Or should MMA not have a duty to push the envelope of expanding health concerns, which can manifest itself in greater and more complex issues, in a progressively amoral world? Clearly, we have to address and confront the issues raised by the Nuremberg Code, the Hippocratic oath, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

As physicians can we confine ourselves to be perpetual "frogs under a coconut shell" ("sebagai katak bawah tempurung")? Do we suffer in silence and implicit complicity with nonchalant disregard for whatever abuses of human nature that are impinging upon the mental and physical health of our prospective patients? Can we remain so staunchly apolitical, when circumstances all around us, are so manifestly otherwise?

In 1992, in a British Medical Association publication 'Medicine Betrayed', one recurring theme emerged: "If the possibility of abuses in human rights comes to the attention of a medical practitioner he has an ethical duty to take immediate action."

Doctors are increasingly exhorted to become more pro-active in pursuing human rights. In Malaysia, this concern for human rights has translated into a resolution, which had been unanimously endorsed by delegates at the last Annual General Meeting.

Ultimately, we have to decide that as doctors we can and must help lead the direction of where we want our nation to go. We have a moral duty to ensure that Malaysians continue to enjoy the very basics of human rights. We must dare to speak out at wrongs when they are clearly wrong, and espouse the right path when that is not readily forthcoming.

As such, it is incumbent upon the MMA to strongly voice its concerns, whenever it feels some of these rights have been threatened or abused. The press in any form should report as impartially and as accurately as possible, without any interjection of bias or slant for its own purposes.

We must protect the very foundations of our shaky society now so repeatedly battered by the temblors of moral decay, institutional failure, loss of faith and credibility for the establishment, including the local press and media.

Can we honestly now say that we trust the rule of law, the police, the judicial system, our politicians, the press, the media, or for that matter, even our own medical association? It is not that we are questioning these institutions for the mere sake of doing so, or for any other ulterior motives. But as well-meaning citizens who love this country, we have every right to want and expect the best that we can be. There can be no denying however, that of late, there is that niggling growing perception that all is not well.

Of course, we can also vaingloriously wave a magic wand and hope that all these will vanish, but this will simply be wishful thinking. We can also embark on hype with repeated sloganeering of Malaysia Boleh, to distract us from the besmirched truth out there. As I have stated once before, the credibility crisis in our society has never been so stark. Sadly, we remain mired in moral, socio-economic and political uncertainty, with no vivid end in sight.

Perhaps, it is time for us as citizens to come together to help effect a more meaningful change and inject a new sense of purpose and decency into the Malaysian society. We can try and help rebuild and re-establish the primacy and foundations of our institutions––ones that we can all respect and defend.

The local press must find a way to re-establish its credibility and moral suasion. It must learn to tell the truth without the political coloration, in which it is now so entrenched. Let us make every Malaysian proud to be a Malaysian, once again.

24 September 1999

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