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The Bowerbird Writes

Monday, 16 April 2018 | MYT 12:00 AM

A day to strengthen journalistic commitment

AT LAST we have a National Journalists’ Day, also known as Hawana, its Malay acronym. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak officiated the launch of the important day last Wednesday. It is the government’s recognition of the role played by journalists in the country.

From next year, National Journalists’ Day will be celebrated on May 29. In fact, the date marks the 1939 birth of Utusan Melayu in jawi script, published by the company of the same name, at Cecil Street, Singapore.

The newspaper came out more than 60 years after the first Malay newspaper, Jawi Peranakan, had first been published in 1876. Of course, the country’s oldest newspaper, now known as New Straits Times, began in 1845 in the form of The Straits Times, almost a century earlier than Utusan Melayu.

The publication of Utusan Melayu is an important landmark in the history of Malay newspapers. There were at least 50 newspapers and magazines published after Jawi Peranakan, but according to the book, The Origins of Malay Nationalism by W.R. Roff, Utusan Melayu was the first national daily owned, financed and staffed solely by “Malays of the Archipelago”.

From its humble beginnings, with a first print of 1,000 copies, Utusan Melayu became a force to be reckoned with. It was as much respected as it was loathed.

It became one of the most independent dailies in the land. It came out at the height of what is known as “linguistic nationalism” – a term referring to Malay consciousness and political awareness driven by the Malay vernacular press and the positioning of Bahasa Melayu as the language for the masses.

Utusan Melayu paid a hefty price for its pursuit of editorial independence. Umno wrestled control of the newspaper in 1961, triggering a 90-day strike or Mogok Utusan Melayu. It was a turning point in press freedom in the country.

There are many lessons to be learned from the Utusan Melayu saga. Even the local ruling elite found the newspaper too critical and too uncompromising.

None of its editors before me – I was the editor between 1992 to 1998 – left the company without controversy. It was the same for me too. Almost all were booted out. The late Said Zahari was incarcerated under the Internal Security Act for 17 years.

Flash forward to 2018. The date (May 29) was not chosen so that we can reminisce about the dramatic and tumultuous history of the newspaper and the company. It is in fact a reminder that the struggle to ensure press freedom is alive and well.

It is also about recognising the role of journalists as a whole. They are the unsung heroes in the country’s narratives.

Nothing has changed regarding the need for the independence of journalists working anywhere in the world today, especially in the developing countries.

Yes, there is a role that journalists must play in the pembangunan (development) of the nation. And yes, there must be a caveat when we talk about freedom of the press – it must come with responsibility.

It is incumbent upon the journalism fraternity to prove its worth. Politicians come and go. Journalists stay. They are judged by their adherence to the code of ethics and the acceptable standard of accountability. The demand for fairness and independence is louder now than ever before.

The love-hate relationship or even hate-hate relationship between the press and public and between the press and the ruling elite is nothing new. There have been complaints about unfair reporting and biased tendencies within the media leadership in this country since time immemorial. The crescendo of discontent towards the press will breach the stratosphere as we near the GE14 polling day.

The world is changing. The Internet is the biggest disruptor of traditional media. The cyber world is changing news gathering and the dispensing of news.

Everyone with a smartphone can report the latest events, big or small, anywhere in the world and in real time. It is challenging for media companies.

The cyber world is changing everything in its wake. It is not just a revolution; it is in fact the advent of a new civilisation driven by the unpredictable world of smart apparatuses. There is a lot of rethinking in the media about the way forward. They need to transform.

We are not sure what lies ahead. A year is too long in the world of the media today. For the mainstream media to stay relevant, media practitioners must ensure its relevance. The least we can do is to look back to the days when the Malay vernacular press like Utusan Melayu was truly the voice and the conscience of the people.

The National Journalists’ Day will hopefully strengthen the journalists’ resolve to play their critical role in society. Similarly, the annual event will hopefully encourage the government of the day to allow journalists to work under a conducive atmosphere without fear and favour. This will help ensure a healthy democracy.

Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years, chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. The views expressed here are entirely his own.