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The neglect of professional responsibility by the mainstream press

Choo Zheng Xi

22-year old Yong Vui Kong might soon be hanged. His neck and spine will be snapped, an effect calculated with precision by the hangman who places the noose around his neck.

[Picture left: Vui Kong, third from left, with his sister, Vui Fung, and brothers Ah Lun, Yun Leong, and their mother.]

The broad ranging debate over the death penalty and its unjust application in Singapore is markedly different online and in the print press. Nowhere do the ‘twain least meet than in the way these two media address the issue of the death penalty.

In contrast to the dogged coverage of Vui Kong’s case on the internet, the Straits Times carried a generous half page report, by its reporter Zakir Hussain, on Law Minister K Shanmugam’s remarks justifying why Vui Kong should hang. Despite seeming keen to do an article on Yong’s lawyer’s comments, Zakir Husain’s piece on Mr M Ravi’s reply never saw the light of day.

The pathology of responsibility avoidance is difficult to unpack, but if you’re a journalist in the mainstream media, the following thoughts might have crossed your mind:

“My pay is contingent on my silence, my performance bonus, maybe even my next job rotation.”

“It’s really not my fault. My editors are the ones telling me there’s no space for my piece, that this isn’t the right time to run it. I’m only a journalist.”

“It’s really not my fault. I’m an editor but I’m still answerable to the board of directors of SPH. And God forbid I get a call from The Press Secretary.”

We’ve heard these arguments before: they echo the justifications proffered by low level functionaries in reprehensible regimes.

One unifying theme prevails: responsibility can be divested, blame can be shifted. In the calculus of the psyche, taking a firm position of courage becomes much less rewarding than seeing and hearing no evil.

To our friends in the mainstream media: TOC has held off on saying this for some time, because we’ve given you the benefit of the doubt when you’ve told us that you’re trying your best.

But there comes a point where a dereliction of professional responsibility shades into complicity. Here’s some encouragement, some food for thought.

The next time you spike a piece on Yong Vui Kong’s impending execution, the next time you hold off on doing your basic job and reporting Ravi’s replies, the next time you cover up the outcry that’s breaking out just across the causeway, please know that you are complicit.

To our readers in the online community, you can do something about this: write to these journalists, write to their editors, appeal to them as human beings, as trained professionals. Tell them we’re not expecting them to campaign on our behalf, the way the Chinese press in Malaysia has taken up Vui Kong’s cause: we just want them to tell Vui Kong’s side of the story.

Tell them also about the consequence of their silence and the disgust you feel when a 200kg fish makes the front page but a fundamentally important debate about life and death is nowhere to be seen.

Tell the journalists this: by your silence and your neglect of your professional responsibility, you will be complicit in a boy’s hanging.

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Visit this blog for Vui Kong’s story: http://savevuikong.blogspot.com/

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