The homophobic media

19 Aug 09 : 8.00AM
By Zedeck Siew

FOR the past week or so, a Bernama news article entitled Unconventional Methods To Prevent Influenza has been making its rounds on the internet. The reason? It quotes one Dr V M Palaniappan as claiming that masturbation and "homosexual activities" increase the likelihood of swine flu infection.

Apparently, such acts cause the body to develop friction heat, which leads to body "hyperacidity". "Thus, the body becomes an easy target for H1N1 infection," Palaniappan told Bernama. However, Palaniappan emphasised that "normal sexual union" — between members of the opposite sex — was safe.

It should be noted that Palaniappan, an ecologist formerly of Universiti Malaya, is a proponent of the Ecological Healing System, a form of complementary medicine. Neither on his website nor in the Bernama article is he identified as an accredited medical doctor.

And, while we try to keep an open mind towards alternative medicine, the authority with which Palaniappan discusses influenza A(H1N1) infection is shaky, at best.

It certainly sounds like quack science. Actual medical professionals, like Tropical Infectious Diseases Research and Education Centre (Tidrec) director Professor Dr Sazaly Abu Bakar, have since come out against Palaniappan's claims.

"There is absolutely no truth to it," Sazaly was quoted as saying.

To his credit, Palaniappan published a lengthy apology and clarification on his blog on 15 Aug, and admitted that the information he gave before was incomplete and inaccurate. "The misconception must have been due to my ignorance of homosexual relationships. I am sorry again to have hurt them," he wrote. To date, however, Bernama has not reported Palaniappan's retraction and apology.

It is the "interesting" stories, such as Palaniappan's initial homosexual relations theory, that tend to get wide circulation: remember the plans for our angkasawan to make teh tarik in space? Indeed, strange and erroneous ideas are an inescapable part of the human milieu.

So really, the issue of Palaniappan's statement isn't silliness. It is about media responsibility.

"Pesta lesbian"

Why were Palaniappan and his opinions given space and such importance by our national media agency? Such a gesture lends credibility to bad science. Worse, by "confirming" the swine flu pandemic's link to homosexuality, it gives homophobes yet another reason to perpetuate hate, just as one Harian Metro report recently did.

On 13 Aug 2009, the Malay-language tabloid published a front page exposé of a private party organised by the queer community. The article, Pesta lesbian, by one Sarah Zulkifli, detailed the goings-on at this "party of vice".

"The wild party began in the late evening and its merriment began to be felt after 10.30pm, with more than 30 women that mixed freely without care of race or religion, who danced on a stage whilst illuminated by colourful lights ... it was disgusting to see Malay women dancing closely with their female partners without paying attention to the people around them," Sarah reported.

Such tabloid prose would have been comedic, if it weren't for ripples it created. The next day, English-language daily The Star, in its Other News & Views segment, published a translation of the Harian Metro story. The leading English daily gave the translated report the sensationalist title Lesbians mark their 'independence' with wild party.

Elaine Foster, one of the party's co-organisers, tells The Nut Graph that, immediately following the exposé, the community organisations to which she belongs saw some members leaving. Another group "came out" by renouncing its queer status, to distance itself from the anticipated witch-hunt.

"You can't name any of these organisations, though," Foster adds. It isn't surprising, in a global climate where homophobia still bears violent fruit, that the Malaysian queer community has reacted with fear and paranoia.

According to Foster, the party she organised was meant to be inclusive. "It was a party that celebrated sexual diversity. That's why every kind of person — straight, gay, lesbian, and so on — was invited," Foster says. "It had an open door to anyone who wanted to celebrate their sexuality — and the sexuality of others."

Naughty, naughty

The Harian Metro writer admits, in her story, that she "disguised herself as a 'lesbian practitioner'" to gain admission to the event.

Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) executive director Gayathry Venkiteswaran denounces such investigative strategy as "very naughty".

"You go in there with false pretences, talk to people who don't know they are being interviewed, and use that as a major quote in your story. Where is your credibility?" Gayathry tells The Nut Graph.

The Harian Metro story attributed the quotes it carries to one "Tina", a "20-something" woman.

"It is a violation of the rights of the individual," Gayathry says. She explains that such interviewees would have been denied a host of rights: the right to consent to being quoted, as well as the right to defend and explain themselves for a public audience. "Journalists need to respect those rights."

Additionally, how can a reader tell if Tina was real, or fictionalised by the reporter to lend credence to her narrative?

The Harian Metro story was also irresponsible because it was partial. The writer employed a sensationalist tone that expressed clear outrage at such demonstrations of "deviant sexuality".

"It is problematic because they only present one view," Gayathry says.

She hazards that Harian Metro's self-assumed position as a moral guardian may have been forgivable if the tabloid had a history of allowing other, dissenting voices within its pages. Or if, in the wider scheme of things, there are other Malaysian media of equal weight that support sexuality rights to balance the Malay-language daily's lopsided stance.

"The problem is that there is no level playing field. There aren't those competing spaces," Gayathry explains. "So it is not okay (to occupy such a position), given the circumstances."

Minorities at risk

Both Bernama's story about swine flu remedies and Harian Metro's exposé of pool-side affection are examples of how the media's ethical shortcomings can lead to the further victimisation of minorities. And sexual minorities aren't the only ones at risk when the media behaves irresponsibly.

One need only remember the Al Islam reporter who photographed a half-chewed Catholic communion wafer, back in July. Christians, a religious minority in Malaysia, felt outraged and besieged.

Perhaps the critical ingredient lacking in all these cases is basic mindfulness and respect for each other — an approach that can be easily and effectively practised through sound journalistic ethics.

Bernama and Harian Metro, and before that Al Islam, should have considered the repercussions their stories could potentially cause. More importantly, they should consider their loss of credibility by being judgemental without being accurate and fair, and by being disingenuous, even dishonest, in the methods used to get a story.

And, if these media organisations will not, of their own volition, be accountable to fairness, accuracy and responsibility, the responsibility of keeping them responsible falls to society itself.

"Different groups and individuals need to come out and speak out against this," Gayathry says. If not, we can be sure that there will be more sensationalist reporting that casts wild and unfounded assertions on groups of people who are already marginalised and discriminated against.

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