Is journalism dead?

Steven Gan

22 May 2019, 11:33 pm

Updated a year ago


COMMENT | I am a journalist by default, not by design. When I was younger, I wanted to be an architect. Indeed, I was halfway through my architecture degree in Australia before I realised building glass towers was not my calling. Don’t get me wrong. I love architecture. I still do. But journalism is what I do now.

After I graduated from university, I came to Hong Kong, which became my base as I travelled around Asia. I was a "backpack" journalist then and as I hopped from one country to another, I saw tremendous suffering, abject poverty and absolute deprivation. But at the same time, I also saw resilience, grit, and optimism. That gave me hope.

When I finally returned to Malaysia, I found that the only way I could practise "real" journalism was to publish on my own. In Malaysia, many newspapers, radio and TV stations were either directly or indirectly owned by political parties - the only democratic space left was cyberspace. That was how Malaysiakini, which means Malaysia Now, was conceived with the help of co-founder Premesh Chandran.

Still, despite the government pledge not to censor the Internet, Malaysiakini was raided by the police five times. Often, our computers were carted away. The first time was when Dr Mahathir Mohamad (photo) was at the tail end of his first stint as prime minister. All of our computers were seized.

Over the past 20 years, we were harassed, arrested and sued – including by then prime minister Najib Abdul Razak – time and again.

It is indeed ironic that Mahathir - who called us traitors and tried to shut us down - is now back as the country’s leader.

Internet of Everything

Today, as we talk about Industry 4.0 and Internet of Everything, the gulf between rich and poor continues to widen. Indeed, the concentration of wealth is getting even more obscene – some make so much money that it could last them many thousands of lifetimes, while hundreds of millions struggle to make ends meet every day.

Yet this global capitalist system is being sold by the media as a great model for humankind. Perhaps the market is a model that works well for a few and not for most people. Perhaps the market can be a great wealth-creating machine, but not so great when it comes to building a humane and just society.

Perhaps while we speak out against authoritarian regimes, we should also be concerned about the dictatorship of the market.

It is this which Malaysiakini has set out to do - to challenge not only an authoritarian regime, but also find a viable model that can stand up to the dictatorship of the market.

Since its inception, Malaysiakini has been driven by one key principle - independent media needs independent financing.

Thankfully, we have been able to live up to that principle, more or less, over the past two decades. This is mostly because we raised funds from our readers through subscriptions 15 years ago – long before media organisations believed that some people are willing to pay for online content.

Journalism under threat?

There’s the perception that journalism is under threat. But in reality, it's media companies which are under threat, not so much journalism.

The role of journalists - in recording events, in presenting facts, in building opinions - is here to stay. That is not to say, journalism is not under siege. It is - from men and women in military suits, from men and women in business suits, and from men and women who write computer codes.

Moreover, attacks on the press do not only come from the government or goons hired by drug lords, or religious zealots who warn of hellfire and damnation. The threat to journalism also comes from the purveyors of fake news, the troll armies, and the technology companies which have reaped the rewards of the Internet.

There’s a new documentary called "Active Measures". It argues that the testbed of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 US presidential election was initially the Ukraine election in 2004, and later in Estonia and Georgia.

The premise of this Russian clandestine operation is simple – instead of sending tanks, you undermine democracies by sowing division.

If people are divided as a nation, they cannot protect themselves. The aim is to promote the extremists on both sides so that politics become more polarised. They will then plant a lie, and it will take a life of its own - they don’t have to do the propagating, social media will do it for them.

Imagine, if one can be successful in undermining democracy in the world’s most powerful nation, you can be sure that every demagogue would want to do the same in their little nook of the world.

Fight back

So we must fight this new threat to democracies everywhere. In the short term, we will need to investigate and expose such "active measures", if any, in our countries.

We also will need to get press freedom groups – Reporters San Frontiers, Committee to Protect Journalists, International Federation of Journalists and others - to work together to bring Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram and the like to account. They must be forced to take responsibility in ensuring their platforms are not exploited by anti-democratic forces.

And in the long term, we will have to play a role to improve media literacy – in the mass media, at home and in our schools.

Indeed, for the first time in a long while, we – journalists around the world - have an issue which concerns all of us; north and south, east and west.

We must defend journalism. We must ensure that the role of journalists - in recording events, in presenting facts, in building opinions – is here to stay.

We need journalism - in whatever form - because democracy is about voters making an informed choice at the ballot box. And that can only happen if there are credible sources of news, where information is factual, trustworthy and accurate.

Unfortunately, dictators and demagogues have today found an easy way to kill democracy. They do this by first killing journalism. This is why we must continue to commit the act of journalism, for democracy is better served with more journalism, not less.

A losing battle?

I know at times it appears we are fighting a losing battle. I felt the same way in the many years I was with Malaysiakini. But we did not give up. 

Eventually, we helped remove a corrupt and authoritarian government which had been in power since Malaysia won independence 60 years ago. Still, the struggle continues.

Believe me, journalism does make a difference – it can help empower people, it can help bring change, it can help improve lives.

There is a quote that I came across some years ago, and something that I have tried to live up to. It has served me well. I hope it will do the same for you. I hope that it will be your guide - as it has been mine - as you embark on your journey to contribute your little bit to change the world.

It goes like this:

People are illogical, unreasonable and self-centred,

Love them anyway.

The good that you do today will be forgotten tomorrow,

Do good anyway.

What you spent years to build may be destroyed overnight,

Build anyway.

Give the world your best, and they will kick you in the teeth,

Give the world your best anyway.

VIDEOHong Kong Journalists Association 51st annual dinner

The above is Malaysiakini editor-in-chief Steven Gan’s keynote speech at the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) annual dinner on May 18. 

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