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Online media: Acceptance is a ‘sham’

 | March 31, 2012

The alternative media may have been accepted into the National Union of Journalists, and 'acknowledged' by the government, but it's far from being 'inclusive'

COMMENT

Being an online journalist or a member of the ‘alternative’ media is something of a Catch-22 situation – you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. Almost any journalist or writer with the online media will attest to this and the opinion by certain quarters that what they report about would make any spin doctor proud.

Herein is the irony of it all because it’s no guarded secret that the online media gets the flak it does for reporting what the mainstream media doesn’t – the truth as ugly as it is, about what’s actually going on.

The alternative media may have been accepted into the National Union of Journalists, and we may have the official government issued press tags yet inclusiveness is not what I’ve found.

For reporting facts, we get branded as trouble-makers, rebel-rousers, disturbers of the peace – and these are just the mild names. The other colourful name-calling variations cannot be mentioned here in polite and civil company.

And when we don’t report something, we’re branded as government minions who are too afraid to speak out, or worse, paid to keep silent. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

I once asked a friend, who is also the press secretary of a prominent minister why his boss wouldn’t consent to an interview with the news portal I’m with.

The answer, although straight to the point, was annoying yet amusing. He replied, “Because he is scared of the questions you will ask him.”

Then there is the case of this man, the descendant of a purported Malaysian warrior who after spending 30 minutes on the phone with me, agreed to an interview. Two days later however, he cancelled the appointment when he realized that Free Malaysia Today is an online news portal.

His words were: “You all like to add to things and always write about race, religion and politics.”

I wanted to tell him that I will be writing about legacy and history but it was futile to do so as he went on a barrage, naming several online news portals as trouble-makers and ingrates. In addition to being trouble-making scribes, we are also ungrateful wretches apparently.

Ready scapegoats

What these ministers and friends fail to realize is that if they were to speak with the online media, it would mean a chance for them to be taken seriously. That the readers would know that this isn’t just another public relations-dutiful-styled reporting by the mainstream media. Wouldn’t it be nice, not to have the rakyat roll their eyes at yet another sterile interview with a member of parliament?

This and several other less than savoury encounters with such individuals have led me to this conclusion. Ministers, politicians and those who are pro-government or whatever you want to call it, will always have a bone to pick with what the online media reports.

This is for the simple reason that we are ready scapegoats – at least that’s what they think.

Contrary to popular belief, the online media isn’t all about government bashing. It just looks that way because the government is continually cooking and serving up one hot mess after the other, and that’s what we report – the truth about what is happening.

Do you think we would have come around in the time we did, after 54 years of being ruled by the same government had it not been for the alternative/online media?

Once, I remember telling an ex-colleague who is still with the mainstream media that I had stopped reading a certain section of the paper because I so rarely saw my life or myself represented in its stories or photographs.

Through the years the excuses I heard for these lapses ranged from “we just didn’t think about it” or “we didn’t have anyone to send” to “there was no space” or “we had to make deadline.”

How about, because we are owned the by government and have become too complacent to move because it’s a lot easier this way.

But the worldwide web (www) is supposed to be different, right? Space is unlimited. The ability to aggregate copy gets around staffing concerns. The institutionalized habits (and excuses) that hamstrung the legacy newsrooms aren’t part of the online culture.

You would think that online mainstream media would be a little more ‘brave ‘ or open in their reporting style.

But this is wishful thinking as they are caught in the same loop that ensnares print mainstream media.

Complete imbalance

The rules, convention and discipline of traditional media which have been built up for many years, do not apply or are difficult to enforce or online media.

Where the Internet is concerned, there is complete imbalance between the right of an individual to express his views on the net, and the right of an individual to seek redress.

The basis of such arguments, even if well-intentioned, fails on two counts. First, it erroneously presumes that the regulation of traditional media has worked in advancing public rights and civil discourse.

And second, it does not recognise that online media is a fundamentally different in type from traditional media and is subject to its own rules of engagement.

If you believe that the modern press started as a well-intentioned service for the people, you are most probably right. The earliest recorded form of telecommunication was a written sheet bearing the news of a particular town, carried miles to another town to be read publicly at the town centre.

In an age where literacy rates were low, that was the news, verbally delivered as it might be.

Technology through the years, starting with the printing press, radio and many manifestations of television, has allowed media to reach out to more of an increasingly literate public, and this literacy is not just in the form of reading and writing, but also in how we ‘read’ sound and images.

The assault on the senses has also made the news maker a lot more intimate to the reader, such that we think nothing of intruding into their private space.

But it is an error to believe that regulation came about to protect privacy. First, we have to accept that media regulation in modern (read: non-repressive, open market) societies, especially tools like licensing and defamation laws, are often sought and effected by those in power, who are often the public figures that have as much to gain from the publicity generated by the media.

It will be self-defeating to reach a climate where the media, out of fear of being sued, refuses to publicise the stories news makers’ wish to be heard.

New dimension

Regulation offers a suitable compromise. “Write what you like, but flout the rules I make and you will suffer the consequences.” For the greater part of human history, regulation is more about control.

But to date, the most stunning quality of the Internet has been the power it gives to the people. Its quick evolution, away from the specialised know-how and high cost, and up the ladder of consumerism, transformed it into the online world of user-generated content that we are familiar with today. Online media brought a new dimension to the entrenched power structure, where the everyday people finally have a voice.

The misguided would continue to think of it as still being “the Internet” – another piece of technology, another channel that can and should be subjected to regulation.

Oddly, and with no intention of romanticising it, online media is in fact the de-regulation, or perhaps re-regulation, of traditional media.

By turning the existing power structures of public representation on its head – anyone with an internet connection now has a voice – online media assumed the people-centric role that traditional media has left behind.

Has this always been a good thing? There will always be those who take their new-found liberty for granted.

But to focus our laws on addressing these isolated incidents is to miss the bigger picture about what online media really stands for – a rebalancing of the way modern society has worked in terms of public representation.

The dual-way communication offered by online media should also not be understated.

Online conversations are clearly different from the one-way format that traditional media has been using to assert their position of authority.

They allow new thoughts to be formed, or at least remove the monopoly of ideas. If we reach a stage where, due to regulation, people are afraid to express their disagreement or shy away from direct engagement, we are all the more impoverished from it as a learning society.

Value of thoughts

Yet there are those who clearly prefer not to take advantage of this interaction, and view online media as another way to push out their messages into the virtual ether.

Failure to engage will win you no friends, and surely not the argument. For online media is founded not on the authority of a person who can threaten to sue, but the value of thoughts and ideas.

Does online media deserve its own special set of regulations based on the working model of traditional media? I would think that the answer is a flat ‘no’, unless such regulation is done by first taking a long hard look at what online media can offer – from the perspective of the man on the street, not the annexes of power that are currently colonised by those in authority.

Indeed, this article has never been about protecting freedom of expression, much as it sounds that way. It is about having the right frame of mind in an increasingly connected world, and punching some clarity into those who do not understand what online media is about, yet seek to legislate it.

The truth is that we will never be able to regulate online media the way we would traditional media.

Yet if we take a long hard look at how ready traditional media has been in forwarding the interests of the people, and compare it against what online media has to offer, when still mostly unbridled, and we begin to wonder why we bother to begin with.


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