Malaysia

Utusan lawyer: Newspapers lack ‘luxury of time’ to vet truth

By Ida Lim and Toh Chin Hong
December 27, 2012
Latest Update: December 28, 2012 01:57 am

Anwar is suing Utusan Melayu for alleging that he was an advocate of gay rights. — File picAnwar is suing Utusan Melayu for alleging that he was an advocate of gay rights. — File picKUALA LUMPUR, Dec 27 ― Newspapers do not have the “luxury of time” to ascertain the truth of their news reports, Utusan Malaysia’s lawyer Datuk Firoz Hussein Ahmad Jamaluddin today told the High Court here when justifying the urgency of the Malay daily’s report on Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim this January.

Firoz was making clarifications in Opposition Leader Anwar’s defamation suit against the newspaper that had in January allegedly accused him of being a gay rights proponent in a report claiming he had admitted as much in a TV interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) early this year.

He said that news reports “have a very short lifespan”, adding that television and radio stations would have carried the same news report.

“If newspapers have to go through the full process of ascertaining the truth, the details, they wouldn’t be able to report the next day,” Firoz argued.

“That’s why it was urgent to break the news to the public as soon as possible.”

Firoz later argued that the media does not have the “luxury of time” to ascertain the veracity of “facts” contained in every news report, saying that “nothing will ever get published” otherwise.

But Anwar’s lawyer, N. Surendran, later contended that using the argument that news is “urgent” and “cannot be stale” would mean that “newspapers will be free to publish false statements.”

Surendran further pointed out that Utusan had not sought Anwar’s comments before it went on to publish the story.

Firoz also said today that Utusan’s report on former PAS member Datuk Dr Hasan Ali’s statement was “a neutral transcript of what happened without embellishment”.

“The public has a right to know his (Hasan’s) point of view. He is a politician. It’s nothing personal.”

Firoz said that Utusan should be entitled to the defence of reportage, as they had published a “verbatim report” of what Hasan had said.

He also relied on the defence of justification, fair comment and qualified privilege.

Under the defence of qualified privilege, he argued that as a newspaper, Utusan has a “duty to publish matters of public interest” such as matters pertaining to the law and the opinions of politicians on these issues.

But Surendran argued that there was malice involved, saying that both Utusan’s editor-in-chief and chief news editor had failed to give a straight answer in previous cross-examinations about whether the news report was true.

On October 23, the newspaper’s chief news editor Zulkiflee Bakar had told the court he was “not sure” if the news report was true or not, saying that Utusan had only published it based on an unedited “full transcript” of Hasan’s statement.

Surendran had asked if Zulkiflee agreed that “maybe the content was true, maybe (it was) not true”, to which Zulkiflee replied that it was both.

Zulkiflee had also told Firoz that the news report was based on Hasan’s statement, saying that Hasan should know whether it was true or not.

Today, Surendran claimed that editor-in-chief Datuk Abdul Aziz Ishak was “evasive” and had showed “no confidence” when asked on August 13 if the contents of the news report were true.

Surendran argued that malice on the part of Utusan was proven when the defendant “had no genuine belief” that what was published was true.

Anwar had in January filed the defamation suit seeking RM50 million in damages and an injunction to stop Utusan and its editor-in-chief from repeating statements accusing him of being a gay rights proponent.

At a hearing on July 18, Anwar had told the court that it was “public knowledge” that Utusan Malaysia was Umno-owned and that it took orders from the party’s president.

He also agreed then that homosexuals should be discriminated against to protect the sanctity of marriage, but pointed out that archaic laws should be reviewed to prevent innocent people from being punished.

Earlier this year, Anwar was acquitted of a charge of sodomising former male aide Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, with the High Court ruling that the prosecution had not done enough to prove the opposition leader had committed sodomy against Saiful.

Just days after Anwar was exonerated, Utusan Malaysia front-paged a story titled “Anwar ulas isu gay” (Anwar discusses gay rights), claiming the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) de facto leader had told a BBC interview that laws on homosexuality in Malaysia were considered “archaic” and “not relevant”.

The High Court judge VT Singham had asked both sides to make clarifications today and will deliver his decision on January 21 next year.