Friday, September 27, 2013

Don't seduce us with 'gifts'

Friday, September 27, 2013 - The Malay Mail

WHERE do sports journalists draw a line when it comes to accepting gifts during assignments or ‘angpows’ given by individuals for attending a gathering or sport event? News or sports journalists, as professionals, have to adhere to a code of ethics. They need to be fair to all parties involved in any story.
However, they operate in an imperfect world that tries to make them behave in a way that goes against their principles. Nevertheless, they must resist such pressure.
Perhaps public relations companies should not entice them to attend press conferences with expensive ‘door gifts’.
I remember in the early 80s, when I was a rookie, we had to fill out a form when we received a gift, even if it was a ballpoint pen, which had to be signed by the sports editor and then handed to the office of the then New Straits Times group editor-in-chief (GEIC), the late Tan Sri Dr Noordin Sopiee.
Only if the GEIC’s approval is granted could you keep the gift. Otherwise you'd have to hand it back to the giver.
More recently, in July, The Malay Mail editor Frankie D’Cruz ordered a sports reporter and photographer to return the RM100 they had each received from a national sports association president during a ‘buka puasa’ function.
In his commentary “Cutthroat sport of ‘bribing’ reporters”, D’Cruz condemned such acts by associations. His fear is that if journalists are seduced by monetary handouts, the freedom to criticise will be severely compromised.
Although the RM100 ‘gift’ was given ‘dengan ikhlas’ (sincerely), it still went against journalistic ethics.
In response to D’Cruz’s article, National Press Club president Mokhtar Hussain commented that such ‘gifts’ should not be condoned by the fraternity.
“It (handing out money to reporters) is unethical and will jeopardise the integrity of our profession,” said Mokhtar.
Sportswriters Association of Malaysia (SAM) president Ahmad Khawari Isa also said it does not approve of such handouts to sports journalists.
“We are proud of the fact that sports journalists are free to articulate their opinions on any issue,” he remarked.
“We know the gifts are given in a spirit of festivity and I would like to believe they do not influence sports journalists. However, SAM stresses that money should not be given to journalists in general.”
Considering its strong stance, it was indeed a surprise to read that SAM’s pre-Sea Games visit to Myanmar (about 35 of its exco and ordinary members left for Yangdon on Wednesday) was sponsored by the National Sports Council, Frenz United (a soccer academy), the Malaysian National Cycling Federation (MNCF), the Negri Sembilan government and Milo.
I have no issue with Milo’s sponsorship as it is a corporation that has been involved in sports for decades, but where the others are concerned, isn’t it compromising journalistic ethics?
Why would Negri Sembilan want to sponsor SAM? And while the NSC and MNCF are directly involved in sports, aren't their sponsorships an effort to win over SAM and call in favours in the future?
As for private entity Frenz, which organises tournaments, its sponsorship could be seen as a reward for the publicity it has received so far in the sports pages.
So, what kind of message is SAM sending its members?
I remember when, as the special officer for the sports minister, I was asked to distribute US$100 (about RM330) each to the media crew — both print and electronic — at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, as a token of appreciation.
But having been a journalist for 29 years, I strongly objected to the idea as the media might think the minister was trying to “buy them over”. I suggested that she host a lunch or dinner instead and also hold a press conference to brief the media on the proceedings in Doha.
I was told off by the minister.
“You don’t know the media. What is wrong with a token of appreciation for the job they are doing out of the country?” she asked.
When I still refused, she asked another official to hand out the money. I was told to organise the dinner for a meet-the-media session instead.
Then in 2007, at the Korat Sea Games, I was again faced with the same predicament, this time to give out RM200 to each member of the media covering the Games. Again, another official handed out the money, although I was present to witness the ‘handouts’.
That was when I had a rude shock. News had got around and several sports journalists approached me for the ‘envelope’.
I realised then that this was the norm and sports journalists wanted ‘gifts.’ In all fairness, there are those who hold journalistic values in high esteem.
In Korat, I got another telling off from former sports editor of The Star Ng Weng Tuck. He called and gave me an earful when he heard that his staff had received handouts.
He had them returned the 'envelopes'. Several members of the New Straits Times team also refused the handouts.
Indeed, Ng was the gold medal winner in the ‘race of the journalists’ in Korat.
He refused to accept the minister’s reasoning that the ‘gift’ was a token of appreciation for all the hard work the journalists had put in.
To him, his team were doing what they were paid to do.
If only we had more Ngs.
Then sports journalists can walk tall and write without fear or favour.

TONY MARIADASS is sports editor
of The Malay Mail. He can be reached

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