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Friday, May 07, 2010

Race Barometer

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Image taken from, hosting by Photobucket Most people in Malaysia put much importance on the question of ethnicity and/or race. For some reason, or reasons, that no one really has been able to explain to Walski satisfactorily.

But that’s the reality we have today – that for many people, ethnicity/race is important – like it or not, fully understand it or not. Despite the fact that the whole construct of Melayu/China/India/Dan-Lain-Lain, as it is today, is one that can probably be considered an imported one that we decided to keep.

But if you think about it, have inter-racial relations deteriorated only of late – post GE12, in particular? Well, if you were to ask Walski, his answer would be: it depends. On what? Well, primarily depending on what you hear and read about.

Which is where the media comes in. Be it print, traditional electronic or even new media (blogs and microblogging platforms such as Twitter), compared to a decade ago, we have a heckuva lot more sources of information available to us.

And what the media has to say about the health of race relations, and more importantly, how it chooses to report race-related matters in Malaysia, play an important role in shaping our own opinion with regards to race relations. “Reality” is many times shaped by how we view it.

And it’s not just Walski who thinks that the media plays a big role – the Center for Independent Journalism (CIJ) thinks so, too.

So much so that they’ve taken the trouble to put together a forum to discuss exactly this topic as part of their World Press Freedom Day celebrations.
(CIJ’s WPFD program, and more, in the full post)

CIJ website masthead, image hosting by Photobucket Although the actual World Press Freedom Day falls on May 3rd (last Monday), CIJ has decided that their program would be a bit later in the week.

Entitled “Building Peace Across Communities”, the program will be held on Saturday, May 8th, 2010 (from 10:30am to 1:30pm) at The Annexe Gallery, Central Market Annexe, Jalan Hang Kasturi, in KL.

Building Peace Across Communities” itself will be a forum, with four panelists from regional media organizations participating. As of the time of posting, the confirmed panelists are:

  • Ms Insany Syahbarwati, head of the Maluku Media Center, Ambon, Indonesia
  • Dr Mustafa K. Anuar, communication studies lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia
  • Ms Jacqueline Ann Surin, editor of The Nut Graph
  • Ms Prangtip Daoreung, Asian Public Intellectuals Fellow

The panel will answer a set of pre-prepared questions, as well as respond to questions from the floor, as outlined by CIJ in their program write-up that Walski received.

The background as to why this theme was chosen is perhaps best explained by CIJ themselves (emphasis by myAsylum):

52 years ago, on 1 September, newspapers heralded the birth of a new nation comprised of peoples of multiple ethnicities. Today, the media buzzword is 1Malaysia, a concept introduced by the government of the day as an affirmation of the various ethnic groups that make up the nation.

That the concept itself is needed five decades after Independence is a reflection of the deteriorating state of race relations in the country.

For media watchers, it brings to question the role that the media has played as both shaper and mirror of society, constrained as they may be by the sociopolitical and ownership demands of the environment in which it operates.

How has the media coverage of ethnic relations been? What are the challenges journalists face when it comes to reporting on matters that involve the apparently still-sensitive issue of ethnicity? What are the ways of providing space for meaningful discussion on ethnic issues without distilling the truth of the story? Is this issue of media representation of ethnic groups a concern across Malaysia or is it only a peninsular preoccupation?

Looking ahead, how can the media reflect the commonalities that the 1Malaysia concept strives to highlight above the differences that are nevertheless an essential part of what makes our nation? What are the lessons we can take from our neighbour Indonesia, which has experienced some of the most violent ethnic/religious conflicts in the region, but whose civil society organisations – including media – have risen to the challenge of mediating for peace?

(source: CIJ Publicity Note)

In addition to the forum, the program will also mark the launch of CIJ’s annual report, “Freedom of Expression in Malaysia 2009: An Annual Review by CIJ”. It will be interesting to see what CIJ has to say about the state of freedom of expression in Malaysia today. From what Walski has seen the last 12 months, the report is not expected to be very complementary.

Unfortunately, Walski won’t be able to attend due to other prior commitments, but he is certain that it will be an interesting program. So, if you have some time tomorrow morning, do make your way to the Central Market Annexe.

Walski’s personal view about the media – in any form – is this: every medium of information dissemination has its inherent bias. There’s really no escaping this. The question then becomes, how much bias? And that’s not an easy question to answer, because it will depend on our own individual world-view as consumers of information. On a rough scale, though, Walski rates the media we have today in Malaysia as ranging from “leaning towards”, to “blatantly biased”.

Because our individual world-views vary, a news organization that is objective in its reporting could be seen to be biased because it doesn’t support our own viewpoints and leanings.

And this is important to realize especially when it comes to issues that we, as a society, still regard as sensitive – in the context of Malaysia, race and religion. So of all the panelists mentioned, it would be the Indonesian experience that Walski would be most interested to hear, because they’ve gone through a recent period of heightened ethnic tension, and have survived it. ‘Recent’, of course, in the larger context of history, where a decade is not really considered a very long time.

Being a frequent visitor to Indonesia, however, Walski’s observation is that the best way forward is by being honest and objective – Indonesian media today is known to be quite no-holds-barred when it comes to reporting. And in the long run, he feels that Indonesians will be the better for it.

Nothing is swept under the carpet, to the nether regions of what you don’t know won’t hurt the powers that be. Yes, that’s Walski’s personal view, tinted with his own personal bias.

With the anniversary of the May 13th Tragedy less than a week away, we’re already starting to see the usual “reminders” by certain interested quarters, making use of the usual media channels, which in Walski’s book can be categorized in the “blatantly biased” bin. The difference today, compared to a decade ago, is that there are counter-voices aplenty via other media channels, questioning the need for these annual reminders.

Which is a good thing – taken as a whole, the availability of various channels of media, with various leanings, is good for a heterogeneous society such as ours. Certain opinions are tempered with counter-arguments, and everybody with something to say, has their say.

With the viciousness of the Hulu Selangor media politicking behind us, and with the anniversary of May 13, the CIJ program is definitely timely. And like Walski said earlier, if you’ve got the time, do attend.

But the 2 questions that remain in Walski's mind, however, are these: Exactly how fragile are race relations in Malaysia today? And if the media is used as a race relations barometer, how accurate a measurement does it really provide?

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