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Wednesday, 4 March 2009

So What Is Press Freedom?

As there has been a lot of hubris written in the media and by extension blogs too under the ubiquitous banner of press freedom, including outright slander hiding under the Internet anonymity, it is quite refreshing to read a journalist writing on what press freedom is in this article from The Star. I however would just like to make a summary of the article on the important points to ponder about what press freedom is all about, hopefully it will open people's mind when they read what is written either in print or electronically.

In light of recent Malaysian headlines – some voyeuristic, some hypocritical - why some non-issues make the news and why other pressing matters like the recession, are relegated to the second rung.Obviously perversion sells. While for the most part you have to keep an open mind about it, it is difficult sometimes to accept that all reports – including those that have no relevance whatsoever to anyone else except the affected individual – are an exercise in press freedom.

A fair and realistic definition of press freedom by Heribert Prantl who heads the national desk of the Sueddeutsche Zeitung (Germany’s largest broadsheet daily) who described it as “... a mighty river … in which not everything that floats in it is clean and not everything which drifts along it is precious.” He added that press freedom “carries valuable and worthless articles, decent and offensive photos, boring and provocative caricatures; and it must also put up with journalists who do not behave in the way one would like someone to behave who claims to be exercising a basic right”.

The German media had vehemently opposed the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights’ (ECHR) on the invasion of privacy of public figures who ruled “The public had no legitimate interest in knowing where sic"a celebrity" goes on vacations or what she does in her private life.” In other words, “Don’t be so sibuk lah!” Yet, the press countered with an equally valid point. If their right to report on public figures were fettered, they would be unable to highlight how public figures behave, who their business contacts are or who pays for their holidays. (Random examples that come to mind include lawyers holidaying with judges or government officials photographed with shady people). I am all for this argument. For by being such kepoh, incredible scandals have been unearthed.

Yet following the “mighty river” allegory, besides playing check and balance or speculating how some celebrities balance their cheques, there are also “driftwood stories". So, perhaps news is what we each make of it. For as a reader, I have the choice of skipping stories that might be offensive to me or I could read them to get an opposing perspective. I can follow-up on stories that could affect me as an individual, citizen or consumer and I can skim over pieces that either make me go “aww” or “eww”.

But the potent combination of press freedom and the latent sibuk within most of us means there will always be news – good, bad and ugly. Although given this new voyeurism in Malaysia, it now also helps to do all you can to stay out of the news. But if, however, you are unfortunate enough to have come under the media spotlight simply by being at the wrong place at the wrong time with an absolutely wrong person, it might help to adopt Mrs Merkel’s, the German Chancellor's stance when facing such poppycock reporting.

Ignore the drivel and get on with business. And create news.

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