As an investigative journalist, the process of uncovering the truth occasionally brings you close to murky depths and dark corners. Places and stories where some would rather were left untouched and hidden in obscurity. Poskod Journalism Campus closed with a panel discussion entitled Risky Business: Investigative Journalism on 21 June.
The panel comprised three journalists with a strong track record in investigative journalism: R. Nadeswaran, better known as Citizen Nades of The Sun Daily, Chan Tau Chou, senior producer at Al Jazeera and Steven Gan, co-founder and editor in chief of Malaysiakini.
“If the daily news cycle is meant to tell us what has just happened, I guess you could say that investigative journalism tells us what really happened,” remarked Ling Low, editor of Poskod.MY and moderator for the panel. But what are the risks and rewards?
Gan remarked that the danger facing investigative journalists in Malaysia is not as great as in certain other countries. He cited a friend, who is working as a journalist in Chiang Mai for a local daily and goes to work wearing a bulletproof vest, complete with a .38 pistol, because he has previously survived an assassination attempt.
The opening gave us a hint of the dangers some journalists are constantly facing in the course of their work. “I think in that sense, Malaysia is quite fortunate. We haven’t descended to that kind of brutality that we see elsewhere,” says Gan after citing that some of the worse he has received were lawsuits from the Prime Minister, being interrogated by the police over three days and having red paint splashed over Malaysiakini’s signboards.
Chan’s examples of hostile situations were mainly overseas encounters. He recounted an experience while he was in Nepal doing a story about Tibetan refugees illegally crossing over to China and their maltreatment at the hands of Tibetan border guards.
Caught up in a scuffle with the Tibetan border guards who wanted to delete their footage, Chan and his cameraman were quick enough to devise a ploy and managed to get away with their recordings intact. “I think it’s important to know what is your backup plan and what is your exit strategy, how to extract yourself from situations,” he said.
Nades recounted an anecdote where he had been confronted by a butcher’s assistant (wielding a knife) following an investigation that had exposed a case of food theft from a hospital. While told comically, it was a reminder that journalists are held accountable to their subjects as well as their readers.
Considering the amount of time invested in investigation, were the panellists ever disheartened when their findings were ignored? Nades admitted his frustrations were many. Notably, his landmark investigation of the Port Klang Free Zone financial scandal, which took three years, resulted in two ministers walking away despite being charged. He also berated the public for not more angry about cases of corruption – after all, “it’s your tax money”.
Chan mentioned that his own investigations often did not allow time for long-term follow up. “What we hope to do, is through a solid piece of journalism create enough awareness that we can in this day and age capture more eyeballs using social media, using the internet and as well as through traditional mediums.”
Gan said that he felt positive about the changes within the country. He observed that from the Mahathir era to today, we have arrived at a point where vibrant conversations can take place on the internet and more people are speaking out. “I could see that politicians out there are reacting and responding to that and that’s great.”
However, Nades capped off the session with a more cyncial counter to Steven’s comments, “In Mahathir’s era, they stole by the millions. Current era, they’re stealing by the billions”. Leaving us with food for thought, the Risky Business: Investigative Journalism panel opened our eyes to a world of journalism that is itself at risk of being under-funded and overlooked.
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Poskod Journalism Campus was produced by Poskod.MY as part of the Cooler Lumpur Festival. We would like to thank our event sponsor The Star, our beverage sponsor The BIG Group and our partners Al Jazeera.