Utusan Malaysia and Teoh Beng Hock

Posted: August 23, 2010 in News

By Ding Jo-Ann (The Nut Graph)

HOW far can a newspaper go in presenting its version of the truth? Yes, it has become generally accepted in Malaysia and internationally that newspapers don’t necessarily print “The Truth” and have their biases. After all, a recent Merdeka Centre survey revealed that almost six out of 10 Malaysians don’t trust the traditional media.

But even so, how far can newspapers push their selective truth-telling? What happens when news reporting becomes truth distortion? And when newspapers start acting against the public interest?
Headlines on <em>Utusan Malaysia</em>

Utusan Malaysia’s front-page headline (click for larger version)

These are questions that come to mind when perusing Utusan Malaysia‘s report on Thai forensic pathologist Dr Pornthip Rojanasunand’s evidence in the inquest into Teoh Beng Hock‘s death. Tiada bukti diseksa was Utusan Malaysia‘s front-page headline, highlighting the fact that Dr Pornthip had retracted her earlier evidence that Teoh’s death was 80% a homicide. It also reported Dr Pornthip’s conclusion that the anal tear and injury to Teoh’s buttocks were not caused by beating, as she previously thought, but due to the fall.

Troubling aspects

There are several troubling aspects about Utusan Malaysia‘s report on Dr Pornthip‘s evidence, some of which are listed below:

* Crucial evidence: “No suicide”

The most significant point of Dr Pornthip’s evidence was surely her firm conclusion that Teoh did not commit suicide. This aspect of her evidence however was completely buried in Utusan‘s report. Dr Pornthip’s stunning conclusion was hidden away, obscured by a description of her “dyed hair” and “tight T-shirt”. This is just unacceptable.

Presenting the rest of the report about Dr Pornthip’s findings while obscuring that crucial piece of evidence completely distorts her evidence and takes it out of context. In fact, it is arguable that such selective reporting and distortion of facts renders reading such a news report almost meaningless.

* Omission of context

Instead of reporting Dr Pornthip’s view that Teoh had not committed suicide, Utusan‘s report focused on how she had retracted her earlier estimate that Teoh’s death was 80% a homicide.

The report however failed to note that her new conclusion was based on her observation of the second autopsy on Teoh. It also omitted to mention that although Dr Pornthip declined to cite a percentage this time, she was still certain there was no suicide involved.

* Gender insensitivity

Why discuss

Is Utusan really so concerned about different hair colours in court? (© Government of Thailand | Wiki Commons)

The reference to Dr Pornthip’s dyed hair and tight T-shirt was completely irrelevant to the evidence that she gave, yet it was mentioned in Utusan‘s report. The fact that this description was lumped together in the same sentence as Dr Pornthip’s conclusion that there was “no suicide” can only be interpreted as an attempt to undermine Dr Pornthip’s credibility when making that conclusion.

And for the record, there was no mention of what Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) prosecution head Datuk Abdul Razak Musa or anyone else was wearing that day.

So what?

Many Malaysians would say that this is only what is to be expected of Utusan Malaysia. After all, it is Umno-owned and strongly defensive of the ruling party and everything connected to it. But such misreporting should not be taken lightly. For here are some consequences of Utusan‘s irresponsible behaviour and unprofessional conduct.

* Lack of accountability

Our government has vast powers over us. Institutions such as MACC and the police have wide powers of arrest and interrogation. Teoh himself was interrogated for at least nine hours, extending into the wee hours of the morning.

Attempts to stop round-the-clock interrogations proved fruitless when the Court of Appeal overturned a High Court ruling barring such practices. Teoh’s death is not the only death in custody which occurred under suspicious circumstances. It is possible that any one of us could end up like Teoh, brought in for questioning one afternoon, only to be found dead the next morning.

It is therefore in all our interests that everything is done to get to the bottom of Teoh’s mysterious death. And hiding crucial facts from readers just does not serve the public interest.
Throughout the demonstration, the crowd shouted, “Siasat!” and “Reformasi” and called the MACC a political tool of the Barisan Nasional.

Demonstration on 17 July 2009 demanding the truth about Teoh’s mysterious death

The media plays an important role in keeping those in power accountable. It is still unclear what part MACC officers had to play in Teoh’s death. But any fact that suggests that they contributed in any way, whether directly or indirectly, must be made known to the public. For how else will our institutions of power change if they can act with impunity?

It is in this context that Utusan‘s skewered reporting does such a disservice to the public. Covering up or glossing over facts indicting those in power only ensures that any possible abuses will likely be repeated. This is no time to protect those in power, regardless of a newspaper’s politics. Not when matters of life and death, and public safety are at stake.

* Polarisation

One-sided reporting also results in increasing polarisation of the Malaysian populace. Take the “Allah” incident for example. Some parts of Malaysia are aware of the use of “Allah” to refer to God throughout history, whether by Christians, Muslims or Sikhs. They know that “Allah” has been used by Christians in Malaysia since before independence. These groups of Malaysians are certain that the word “Allah” predates Islam and that no one can claim ownership over how someone intends to address their God.

Other Malaysians, however, are equally convinced and certain that Christians in Malaysia, especially in the peninsula, never used “Allah” to refer to their God until recently. They surmise that the Catholic church’s court challenge to lift the ban on the use of “Allah” in their publication, The Herald, is a deliberate attempt to challenge Islam and a cunning ploy to confuse Muslims.

Now how did such polarised views come about? Casual chatter over teh tarik and family dinner, perhaps? Or teachings from religious leaders? Underlying all these conversations and teachings would be the media’s influence in shaping opinions and people’s perception about what is “true”. And when the media distorts the truth and hides crucial facts, it can only result in an increasingly polarised Malaysia, where its citizens cannot agree with each other due to the half-truths they have been fed.

So the next time you perceive that a newspaper is distorting the news, don’t be so quick to accept it as a given in the Malaysian media scene. Hold these newspapers to account. If we don’t, it’s just possible that we would be allowing somebody in power to get away with murder.

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