It’s no secret: politicians love publicity, fear exposure
Exposure of information in the public interest, especially of what officials want hidden, is the lifeblood of journalism. Information is power, and the ability to reveal information confers secondary power on the journalist. There is power in being able to reveal what is not known, to let the public know what is being done in their name, or being done to them in the name of others.
Knowing this, and with the fear of exposure driving them, politicians and bureaucrats everywhere have always sought to control information and keep journalists in line.
Some protection of national secrets is necessary, and protection of the private citizen’s privacy is always necessary. The only question that matters is whether exposure is needed, in the public interest.
The public interest is not the same as what interests the public (who usually just want salacious gossip), a confusion which has notably been exploited in the gutter press of Fleet Street as well as among Malaysia’s gutter politico-mercenary journalists.
Malaysia’s outdated laws that throttle information flow have been used mostly to protect politicians and officials and the self-interest of their patrons. To do so, they commonly use grand notions of protecting so-called “national security” and the so-called “national interest”. On the other hand the politician’s fear of being exposed vanishes when there is a chance to expose his rivals’ misdeeds and take him out of the game. For this “national security” and “national interest” is conveniently ignored.
To keep journalists in check, a common question most politicians pose is: who elected you? No one, of course. But who elected lawyers, doctors, policemen, tax inspectors or credit agencies? To which officials merely state that those are empowered under the law. Journalists, too, are empowered under the law, under the Constitution’s guarantees of free speech, and by the yet-to-be-enacted but well recognised public right to a free flow of information that concerns them.
Mahathir Mohamad’s contempt for journalism as a profession and journalists in general during his two decades in power is matched only by his willingness to embrace into his fold any journalist who will be his PR agent. He has often relied on arguments of “national security” and “national interest” against revealing information, where it was only his personal interest and his personal job security that mattered.
It is a trait common to all politicians. Reveal the dirt on their rivals (and someone will quietly leak some dirt if you need) but hide the dirt on “our” side and only play up anything in “our” favour. Then the journalist is praised for practising “responsible journalism”, by becoming responsible for keeping the politician in power.
Officials in the military and the police are just as fond of trotting out the “national security” argument — especially if a journalist reveals information that may hint of dirty deals. The arms trade is rife with corruption, and few of those involved can resist thrusting their snouts into the trough. Since even the mildest secret — and in Malaysia every government document is a secret — can affect someone’s self-interest, anyone breaching the secrecy soon gets labelled as a traitor.
Never mind if the information is already circulating among the establishment — the rakyat must not know.
Zain Sharif of the NST was the first (in my memory) to be hung for a mild exposé in reporting on the military. Nothing too sensational, nothing that put the country’s defence at risk. His was a show trial, as a public scapegoat in warning to others. That is the usual Malaysian government practice of cover-your-ass management. Politics is usually the reason, not security.
The bureaucrat is the first to feel the politician’s fury when an inconvenient newspaper report is published. The first instinct of a bureaucrat is to cover his ass. Therefore a suitable scapegoat must be found, to mollify the politician.
As one who was himself also was a target of Official Secrets Act and KDN investigations, I am not revealing any secret in stating that Malaysian officialdom always seeks scapegoats.
Raja Petra Kamarudin, whose inconvenient exposures of the Altantuya Shaariibuu case, the Tajuddin Ramli MAS case, and others, is a marked man. By comparison, R Nadeswaran and Terence Fernandez of The Sun, are not likely to face the same fate for the reason that their exposés — embarrassing to a lower tier of the powerful — do not reach far enough into the inner sanctums at the very top.
Now the headline-grabbing exposés coming out of the WikiLeaks trove of secret US diplomatic cables, astutely managed by WikiLeaks in involving newspapers as part of the process, and the Guardian’s initiative in managing the data mountain, has wonderfully concentrated worldwide attention on freedom of information, on balancing the need for secrecy — and privacy — against the public interest, and on the role of journalists in exposing sensitive information.
Wong Chun Wai confuses Julian Assange’s privacy with official secrecy:
He is also secretive about his private life and isn’t comfortable with the bits of information that have come out about him. In short, the man who has wrecked governments worldwide with classified material leaks, also believes in the importance of secrecy. » Certain matters should be private.
But he also calls for greater information sharing.
Selangor’s move towards freedom of information, to be followed by Penang, marks a small shift towards restoring the public’s right to know. And remarkably, the sycophantic establishment press have attacked the FoI initiative on the questionable grounds that it may be unconstitutional.
Do they want a free press or not?
(What? And give up the cushy life of being part of the establishment? How dare you!)
Change will not come from those whose self-interest is invested in maintaining the status quo. Change can only come from dumping them where they belong: in the dustbin, with all the other rubbish.
© 2010 uppercaise
Sabry Sharif of the NST fell victim to the OSA in the 1980s. Sabry Zain of the Star and later of Reformasi, was to be a victim of the SB In the 1990s.