Keynote speech by Steven Gan at HKJA 51st Anniversary Gala Dinner

Is journalism here to stay?

■ Steven Gan

Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief, Malaysiakini

I am a journalist by default, not by design. When I was younger, I wanted to be an architect. Indeed, I was halfway through my architecture degree before I realised building glass towers was not my calling. Don’t get me wrong. I love architecture. I still do. But journalism is what I do now.

After I graduated from university, I came to Hong Kong, which became my base as I traveled around Asia. I was a “backpack” journalist then and as I hopped from one country to another, I saw tremendous suffering, abject poverty and absolute deprivation. But at the same time, I also saw resilience, grit, and optimism. That gave me hope.

When I finally returned to Malaysia, I found that the only way I could practise ‘real’ journalism was to publish on my own. In Malaysia, many newspapers, radio and TV stations are either directly or indirectly owned by political parties – the only democratic space left is cyberspace. That was how Malaysiakini, which means Malaysia Now, was conceived.

Still, despite the government pledge not to censor the Internet, Malaysiakini was raided by the police five times. Often, our computers were carted away. The first time was when Mahathir Mohamad was at the tail end of his first stint as prime minister. All of our computers were seized.

Over the past 20 years, I was arrested and sued – including by then prime minister Najib Razak – time and again.

It is indeed ironic that Mahathir – who called us traitors and tried to shut us down – is now back as the country’s leader. Well, some media organisations have the distinction of bringing down dictators and presidents. Malaysiakini is perhaps the only media organisation that can claim credit in removing a prime minister, and bringing him back to power.

Internet of Everything

Today, as we talk about Industry 4.0 and Internet of Everything, the gulf between rich and poor continues to widen. Indeed, the concentration of wealth is getting even more obscene – some make so much money that it could last them many thousands of lifetimes, while hundreds of millions struggle to make ends meet every day.

Yet this global capitalist system is being sold by the media as a great model for humankind. Perhaps the market is a model that works well for a few and not for most people. Perhaps the market can be a great wealth-creating machine but not so great when it comes to building a humane and just society.

Perhaps while we speak out against authoritarian regimes, we should also be concerned about the dictatorship of the market.

It is this which Malaysiakini has set out to do – to challenge not only an authoritarian regime, but also find a viable model that can stand up to the dictatorship of the market.

Since its inception, Malaysiakini has been driven by one key principle – independent media needs independent financing. Thankfully, we have been able to live up to that principle, more or less, over the past two decades. This is mostly because we raised funds from our readers through subscriptions 15 years ago – long before media organisations believe that some people are willing to pay for online content.

Journalism under threat?

There’s the perception that journalism is under threat. But in reality, it’s media companies which are under threat, not so much journalism.

The role of journalists – in recording events, in presenting facts, in building opinions – is here to stay. That is not to say, journalism is not under siege. It is – from men and women in military suits, from men and women in business suits, and from men and women who write computer codes.

Moreover, attacks on the press do not only come from the government or goons hired by drug lords, or religious zealots who warn of hellfire and damnation. The threat to journalism also comes from the purveyors of fake news, the troll armies, and the technology companies which have reaped the rewards of the Internet.

There’s a new documentary called “Active Measures”. It argues that the testbed of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 US election was initially the Ukraine election in 2004, and later in Estonia and Georgia.

The premise of this Russian clandestine operation is simple – instead of sending tanks, you undermine democracies.

If people are divided as a nation, they cannot protect themselves. The aim is to promote the extremists on both sides so that politics become more polarised. They will then plant a lie, and it will take on a life of its own – they don’t have to do the propagating, social media will do it for them.

Imagine, if they can be successful in undermining democracy in the world’s most powerful nation, you can be sure that every demigod around the world will want to do the same.

Fight back

So we must fight this new threat to democracies everywhere. In the short term, we will need to investigate and expose such “active measures”, if any, in our countries.

We also will need to get press freedom groups – Reporters San Frontiers, Committee to Protect Journalists, and others – to work together to bring Facebook, WhatsApp and the like to account. They must be forced to take responsibility to ensure their platforms are not exploited by anti-democratic forces.

And in the long term, we will have to play a role to improve media literacy – in the mass media, at home and in our schools.

Indeed, for the first time in a long while, we – journalists around the world-have an issue which concerns all of us; north and south, east and west.

We must defend journalism. We must ensure that the role of journalists – in recording events, in presenting facts, in building opinions – is here to stay. After all, we need credible sources of news, where information is factual, trustworthy and accurate.

We need journalism – in whatever form – because democracy is about voters making an informed choice at the ballot box.

A losing battle?

I know at times it appears we are fighting a losing battle. I felt the same way during the many years I was with Malaysiakini. But we did not give up. Eventually we helped bring down a corrupt and authoritarian government which had been in power since Malaysia won independence 60 years ago. Still, the struggle continues.

Believe me, journalism does make a difference – it can help bring change, it can help improve lives, it can help empower people.

There is a quote that I came across some years ago, and something that I have tried to live up to. It has served me well. I hope it will do the same for you. I hope that it will be your guide-as it has been mine – as you embark on your journey to contribute your little bit to change the world. It goes like this:

People are illogical, unreasonable and self-centred,

Love them anyway.

The good that you do today will be forgotten tomorrow,

Do good anyway.

What you spent years to build may be destroyed overnight,

Build anyway.

Give the world your best, and they will kick you in the teeth,

Give the world your best anyway.

練乙錚先生分享會—政治低氣壓裡的新聞報道和評論界的集體抑鬱 (Chinese Only)