Reformasi According to Malaysiakini

By Agus Sudibyo

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysiakini – Like many of the elections held across Asia this year, Malaysia’s March 2004 general polls were marred by protests and accusations of irregularities from most sides. Parti Islam Semalaysia (PAS), a particularly strong opposition party, for instance, filed a petition challenging the results in Terengganu state, where it had apparently lost after controlling it for the last five years. But even the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) was unhappy over its own loss – by a very slim margin — in neighboring Kelantan, even though the state had voted for the opposition since 1990. Like PAS, BN filed an election protest.

The dust had yet to settle from all the other protests that were submitted to the election courts when news came suggesting that a “gentleman’s agreement” had been struck between PAS and BN. Two days after that report, the courts announced that the petitions of both parties regarding the results in Terengganu and Kelantan had indeed been rescinded. Apparently, PAS was afraid that it just might end up losing Kelantan while BN figured it needed a strong government in Terengganu. To prevent the former and guarantee the latter, the deal was done.

The mainstream media ignored the news while Harakahdaily.net, an online daily operated by PAS, reported the deal without commenting on it. But Malaysiakini.com, which had published a report on the arrangement before the courts even announced that BN and PAS were no longer pursuing their protests, took time to note some of its significant implications. For one, it seemed to have been done with utter disregard of the sentiments of the parties’ supporters. For another, it begged the question: What was the purpose of conducting and participating in general elections if the results can be “negotiated”? To Malaysiakini.com, the “gentleman’s agreement” undermined democratic practices.

But then this was Malaysia, where the same political coalition has been in power for decades, which meant such deals were no longer surprises. The real surprise lay in the fact that the arrangement had been scrutinized by a newspaper (albeit an online one), as well as in the punches landing not only on the ruling coalition, but also on an opposition party.

Malaysia, after all, was not exactly used to nonpartisan reporting. Malaysiakini.com, however, has been doing – and saying – things as it sees fit since it began operating in late 1999. Though Malaysian officials tend to associate the online media with the opposition parties, fair-minded readers and independent observers acknowledge that Malaysiakini.com has always tried to provide balanced coverage of both sides. The government and the opposition have thus both been caught in its crosshairs as it reports on what it deems as undemocratic actions. At the same time, its letters section has become a very important and fertile ground for political exchange and debates on diverse issues. Describing what the online newspaper has become, communications expert Zaharom Nain says, “Malaysiakini.com is a medium to provide different, alternative faces to dominant discourses.”

The search for “real” news
Malaysiakini.com was born at a time when people were looking for alternatives to the tightly controlled pro-government mainstream media reports. For years, the Malaysian public put up with the uncritical, docile, and fawning mainstream media, but when the political crisis over the September 1998 sacking of then Deputy Premier Anwar Ibrahim erupted, many Malaysians sat up and became more aware of the biases and distortions of the mainstream media. A significant number of Malaysians boycotted the mainstream media. Meanwhile, some 1,000 journalists endorsed a memorandum to the Home Affairs Minister demanding the repeal of the Printing Presses and Publications Act, which among other things requires all print media to obtain a permit every year,  and calling for more freedom of the press.

It was perhaps inevitable that political websites that would soon become identified with the pro-reformasi movement initiated by Anwar would emerge. These websites proliferated between 1998 and 2001. Although many of them eventually became dormant as the months and years rolled by, they added another dimension and sometimes complemented the struggle for reforms and change by civil society groups, opposition parties, and many other concerned Malaysians who had hitherto been politically inactive. Some drew their inspiration from neighboring Indonesia, which had managed to force President Soeharto to step down in May 1998, after more than three decades in power. At one point, it looked like the once politically docile Malaysians were also ready to say that enough was enough.

Many of the more popular reformasi websites were run by a ring of anonymous webmasters while small pro-reform websites were linked to civil society groups such as Aliran Online (rights group Aliran), Free Anwar Campaign (National Justice Party) and Suaram (rights group Suaram). The PAS’s Harakahdaily also drew a very large following.

The emergence of pro-reformasi websites not only provided alternative sources of information and news to Malaysians, but also helped divide the country’s media into two: highly pro-government and independent/critical (and in some cases, fiercely anti-government). This split reflected and reinforced the political divide in Malaysian society, especially among the ethnic Malays, the most dominant group in a race-based political setting. But it took almost a year after Anwar’s arrest before Malaysiakini.com began to operate with three reporters/writers and a senior editor, just a few days before the 10th general election in November 1999.

Without fear or favor
Malaysiakini.com was established as a daily news provider that would be independent, nonpartisan, and professional – everything that the mainstream media were not. It also aimed to be a forum for responsible debate on current issues.

The website has since scrutinized the actions and policies of both ruling and opposition parties, and pointing out the implications of such. As a result, it is both loved and hated by many political parties and their supporters. No one, however, questions that Malaysiakini.com has managed to offset the one-sided coverage of events and issues by the mainstream media, which have generally concentrated on the BN’s positive side, thereby helping the ruling coalition to extend its hegemony.

Malaysiakini.com, though, may not have survived this long had it not been an online daily. In 1997, then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has issued a 10-point “Bill of Guarantees” to allay the fears of investors in Malaysia’s ambitious Multimedia Supercorridor (MSC) project. Included in that bill were pledges that the government would not censor the Internet and would not interfere with the freedom of expression in cyberspace. Thus, while the government continues to have an iron grip on all other media, those who publish in cyberspace have been allowed relative freedom – although they are still subject to certain laws such as the Sedition Act and those pertaining to defamation.

It is a set-up that has not made Malaysian authorities very happy, especially when online media have frequently skewered the government on several issues. Malaysiakini.com, for instance, has reported on cases of detention without trial (under the Internal Security Act or ISA), illegal logging (by BN state governments), abuse of police powers (including alleged and illegal shootings of suspected criminals), the ill treatment of migrant workers, and discrimination against minority groups. Not surprisingly, despite the so-called “Bill of Guarantees,” the e-daily has been condemned by government leaders and pressured to toe the official line (to no avail). It has also had its reporters barred from covering government and ruling parties’ functions and press conferences while some ex-ISA detainees claim that they were questioned about the sources of funds for Malaysiakini and other reformasi websites that were anonymous. In 2003, the police even swooped down Malaysiakini.com’s offices and confiscated its computers after it published a reader’s letter that touched on “sensitive” issues.

Four years earlier, after pro-reformasi websites began to pop up and mushroom, local governments had also proposed that cybercafés should be required to register their patrons. The suggestion, however, upset some quarters including potential investors in the IT industry as it was seen as a violation of the government’s “no Internet censorship” pledge.

Prevalent political disinterest
But perhaps what is keeping Malaysian authorities from going all out against the likes of Malaysiakini.com is the awareness that the country’s public remains generally apolitical and not keen on seeing a dramatic change in the status quo. Indeed, while the success of Malaysiakini.com has inspired optimism that IT may contribute to political mobilization in a scale that has never been seen before, there is also pessimism. Nanyang Technological University associate professor Indrajit Banerjee points out that for Internet democracy to make a tangible impact, there needs to be a politically conscious public that has buying power and a government that respects civil and political rights. Yet in many Asian countries, including Malaysia, political participation is still low and there are official restrictions on what can be expressed in public.

Internet penetration in Malaysia is actually quite high compared to other Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia and the Philippines. As of December 2003, there were 8.69 million Internet users in Malaysia or about 32.8 percent of the country’s population. In general, however, most of Malaysia’s Net users confine their online hours to sending and reading email, chatting with friends, and surfing for entertainment materials. Says Malaysian journalist and IT observer Oon Yeoh: “Our society is still reluctant to pay to read online media (via subscription). If they need information, they rely on newspapers or magazines (relatively cheaper and easily available in the market), not online media.”

Malaysiakini.com’s experience bears this out. When it introduced a subscription system in February 2002 (it used to provide free access to all its contents), the number of readers of its full news reports dropped dramatically. But the letters section, which is still free, continues to command a large following.

Malaysiakini.com now has less than 5,000 paying subscribers. Most of the tens of thousands of daily visitors it still manages to attract content themselves with just scanning the headlines and the news summaries, as well as reading the letters section, for free. With the fees from its small pool of subscribers insufficient to cover its monthly operational costs, the e-daily remains heavily dependent on foreign funding.

It does not help that many Malaysians are still unaware of the website’s existence, despite its rather controversial image, as this writer’s casual survey of ordinary citizens — taxi drivers, traders in the wet market, laborers, youths, university students, and some professionals – revealed. Like other online media, the e-daily is apparently accessed by a relatively small group of academics, students, politicians and bureaucrats, NGO workers, and foreign observers, as well as a few socially conscious Malaysians. This only shows that however excellent and professional media – online or otherwise – are, there are still no guarantees for them in terms of having a significant readership.

Fair and balanced reporting
To reach out to other segments of the public, Malaysiakini.com has been trying hard to rid itself of what some would perceive as its “opposition image.” The daily’s chief editor Steven Gan says, “The general perception towards Malaysiakini.com as a pro-opposition or anti-government media is a serious hindrance. We are faced with a public that is allergic to anti-government stigmatization.”

Yet changing the public’s perception of it has not been easy, despite its determined efforts to be professional and neutral, which means probing even opposition parties and personalities. This has upset some activists and opposition leaders, who insist that because the mainstream media’s coverage is lopsided and its discourse monolithic, alternative media like Malaysiakini.com should be sympathetic to pro-opposition groups, if not part of their struggle altogether. Says Tian Chua, vice president of the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat: “The role of Malaysiakini.com so far has been a ‘balance’ to mainstream media. What we want is a media as a part of social movement against tyranny of power.”

It is true that the government and member parties of the ruling coalition are in a far better position to control news organizations and influence media owners and their coverage. But if reforms are to be achieved in Malaysia, it makes sense that there is at least one news organization that is showing the way for the rest of the media to behave: as professional as possible, without any ideological commitment to any segment of the population. That, after all, is what fair and unbiased journalism is all about, and what the opposition has long said was missing in Malaysia. Malaysiakini.com is only doing what the opposition said Malaysia needed to have. A responsible media must not only be a watchdog of the government, but also of the opposition. Real reformists should expect no less.

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