WRITING this column is one of the few things that I do without fail every week, with the cycle of a regular deadline providing both assurance and propulsion.
However, recently, I was mistaken for a journalist, which is flattering but of course quite inaccurate.
Although there are many academic definitions out there which suggest varying degrees of overlap between a “journalist” and a “columnist”, probably the most important difference is the degree to which the opinion of the writer is allowed to permeate.
Thus, journalists (especially “reporters”) are expected to provide news, sharing verified facts based upon research from accredited or authenticated sources, and maybe describing the reactions of others, but certainly omitting their own opinions.
A columnist (or “commentator”), by contrast, is expected to provide their take on issues, expounding with reference to facts, figures, authoritative sources and arguments to justify their positions and persuade their audience.
The best journalists are those who can be relied upon to transmit reality faithfully in their chosen medium, whereas the best columnists are those who engage, provoke and build a relationship with their audiences (even if they end up not agreeing on every issue).
I explained this to the person who made the misattribution, who appreciated the difference and claimed to have followed my column for years. A further observation was shared: that some newspapers are “readable” again after last year’s general election.
Indeed, the media certainly seems freer now than before, even including on platforms owned by, or perceived to be associated with, the government or political parties (including this newspaper).
Indeed, the latest World Press Freedom Index released in April showed Malaysia jumping 22 places up in the rankings. That sounds brilliant – and so does the fact that this puts us first in Asean.
But – and I acknowledge the weaknesses of international comparative rankings of this type – our ranking is still 123rd worldwide, which says more about the lack of press freedom in Asean than Malaysia’s brilliance.
The report acknowledged the attempted repeal of the Anti-Fake News Law 2018 (though the Dewan Negara blocked its repeal), but there has been no movement on the Sedition Act 1948, the Official Secrets Act 1972, the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 and the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984.
Back in March, a joint statement from several journalists’ groups reiterated that “any effort towards the creation of a media council will be futile if it’s not in tandem with the repeal and/or amendments of certain repressive laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984”.
Last week, we received an update about this proposed Media Council, with Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo saying that the council will be set up by an Act of Parliament that will outline the objectives and functions of the council, its constitution and membership, a code of conduct, the dispute resolution methods and general provisions including examining laws which need to be repealed or amended.
Another area of revitalisation should cover our state broadcaster, Radio Televisyen Malaysia (I can’t write its acronym without singing the ensuing “Teman Setia Anda”).
For those of us who consume the content of the British Broadcasting Corporation voraciously – not just its sports coverage and the Proms, but also its news programming – its model as a public service broadcaster having a non-political, independent board seems like an obvious example of something that could be emulated.
Throughout all areas of public policy, it has been repeated in various roundtables that the government knows full well what reforms are needed to achieve greater delivery and accountability.
It remains true in many cases that more time is needed and even desired if it means getting the arguments and legislation watertight.
But increasing in chatter, too, is the suspicion that some ministers are beginning to see the attraction of these tools of suppression, particularly in an increasingly agitated political environment, and will renege on their commitments.
Already, my interlocutor noted, it seems some stories are not being pursued as vigorously as you might expect from fearless journalists, particularly when it comes to certain political figures.
Already, some articles on popular online sites have the “comments” feature turned off without any explanation. Already, in light of recent events, are the “I-told-you-so” that laws are necessary to clamp down on “fake news”, without much thought given to who defines what constitutes “real” or “fake”.
To achieve another jump of 22 places in World Press Freedom Index, we need hope that the legislative and institutional reforms will happen, but also confidence to push the boundaries.
For it is a cycle of regular improvement that will provide assurance and propulsion not just for writers, but for the nation.
Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is founding president of Ideas. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.