Ownership of the press by political parties is a contentious issue especially among urban and educated section of Malaysian society. Underlying the debate of ownership is a desire for objective press. The concern is understandable: it is quite reasonable to expect the press to exhibit political — sometimes rabid — bias if it is owned by political parties. While I do consider excessively biased content as angering, I do not believe the question of press ownership should be a call to legislate it. Rather, a far more important issue at hand is freedom of the press.

I am quite unsupportive of effort to bar political parties or any entity for that matter from owning the press, be the press falls under the mainstream media category or in other less formal groupings because such action clearly violates a person or an entity’s right to property, one of several concepts central to the idea of liberty.

I hold liberty sacred. Hence, I am unprepared to trample upon liberty for the sake of giving birth to an objective press, as much as I am unprepared to kill a person merely because the other person holds views that I consider as unpalatable.

Objectivity nevertheless is a noble idea to adhere to, especially for those active in the field of journalism. Honest journalists must reports an event without value judgment and as it is with equal weight to the subjects mentioned. Yet, even those who place the ideal of objectivity on the highest pedestal suffer from biases.

Why?

Each and every one of us is a victim of history. Our experience shapes our perception of the world. Our values, however fluid it may be, arise from our perception and we live our lives by our values. By this alone, none of us can truly be neutral in living our lives. Even when a person dedicates himself to neutrality, hidden beneath it all is a subtle hint of bias. Unless somehow we are able to make decisions without falling back to our experience, to be truly neutral is an impossible act to commit in my humble opinion, especially in an environment of diverse values.

Compounding the impossibility of neutrality is perhaps the possible diverse definitions of objectivity and neutrality that exist. Absolute neutrality will require the definition of the very idea to be synchronized across differences of values.

To make it worse, it cannot be denied that there are those who cry for neutrality and objectivity only when it suits them. To these individuals, the only neutral views are views which conform to theirs. Effort to synchronize their definition will prove problematic.

The inherent bias that we all maintain deep inside ourselves is exactly the reason why the act of barring political parties from owning part of the media does little to create objective press. Even without having connection to any political party, editors and reporters the world over are capable of holding personal views. These views could sway to any direction without any encouragement from their employers, whomever that may be.

I confess however that while absolute neutrality is impossible, a society or groups within the society with some shared values does acknowledge a certain level of acceptable objectivity. Any entity that works at that level will escape the accusation of being impartial within local context.

Objective or not, expressing biased views, however distasteful these may be, is part of freedom of expression. To coercively prevent an entity from expressing his, her or its biases is a transgression of free speech and expression. Such transgression is plainly wrong. To coercively prevent the same entity from utilizing his, her or its property to express the biases is a transgression of right to property. Such transgression is doubly wrong from libertarian point of view.

For those who are truly concerned with the objectivity of the press, there is a better way to resolve the issue. The solution involves not the suppression of liberty but rather, the enhancement of liberty. It revolves around the idea of competition of sources.

If there truly is demand for objective press however impossible the idea of absolute neutrality is, then the practice of free press will work to satisfy that demand without relieving anybody from their rights.

The market will correct the situation, if there is demand. Those concerned with objectivity of the press have to be mindful that grossly and consistently impartial and unfair press will quickly lose credibility. To a large extent, the mainstream media closely associated with Barisan Nasional, especially Utusan Malaysia, Berita Harian and New Straits Times did suffer credibility loss when they clearly were not objective and at times printing questionable materials without facts. They have yet to recover whatever credibility they had in the past.

In place of these channels, other less-than-mainstream media have taken over roles of the traditional players as sources of public information, with many actively and continuously successfully challenging the truthfulness of information originating from the so-called mainstream media.

With this cognizance, for an aspiring liberal society, the quest for objectivity should be pursued as part of a larger quest for liberty. What is required instead is a consistent demand to unravel the unholy shackles placed around all forms of press. The issuance of licenses for printed press should be liberalized, book banning should be outlawed and efforts at censorship backed with coercion should be fought against; all that and more in the name of competition of sources.

If objectivity is of value to most, then just like in mechanism of free market, competition is the most efficient manner of bringing objectivity up front in the open above the noise of biases and propagandist shouting matches.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

First published in The Malaysian Insider on March 3 2009.

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