This year, despite historical elections, Malaysia has plunged 23 ranks in the World Press Freedom Index (by Reporters Without Border), falling to the worst national benchmark since 2002. Malaysian Media are still facing major government control and self-censorship issues due to legislation and media ownership concentration. These public broadcast and print restrictions have given birth to independent digital media outlets that strive for a greater freedom of the press and freedom of opinion.
A rigid framework
Media ownership concentration is to blame for the curtailed Malaysian mainstream editorial line. In fact, the political parties control the major newspapers in Malaysia. Media Prima, a media corporation linked to Malaysia’s ruling party UMNO, controls English newspapers such as New Straits Times and Malay Mail, as well as a number of Malay papers. The Utusan Melayu Group, also owned by UMNO, publishes three Malay language dailies. The Star, with daily circulation of 302,658 copies, is owned by the Malay Chinese Association. MCA also controls four other significant media press companies – Sin Chew Jit Poh, Nanyang Siang Pau, China Press, and Guang Ming Daily. Meanwhile, Tamil newspapers such as Malaysia Namban, Makkal Osai and Tamil Nesan are all owned by the MIC.
This collusion between the government and the media is further strengthened by legislation: all citizens’ speech is curtailed by the Sedition Act and the Internal Security Act (ISA, an initially-anticommunist law allowing preventive detention without trial for a range of offenses), and media are subject to additional measures of control. The Printing Presses & Publications Act (PPPA) of 1984 require that all periodicals obtain an annual (and easily revocable) permit, while the Broadcasting Act of 1988 restricts the type of content broadcasted on television.
Further decline in media freedom in 2013 is also linked to the government crackdown on Bersih opposition rally last April: during the manifestations, recording equipment was stolen and reporters suffered mistreatments. Following last spring’s manifestations, the government implemented creative censorship techniques to limit coverage of support for the opposition and reports of alleged corruption within the ruling party. Leading business radio BFM 89.9 was forbidden to broadcast political news on account that the station focuses on finance. As a result, the station published all political content online. The government crackdown on all publically broadcasted or printed content has forced many media outlets to go digital.
One outlet to rule them all
When Malaysians gained access to the Internet in the mid-1990s, the Malaysian government opted for non-interventionist policies, viewing connectivity as a commercial tool, and not yet a vector of political opposition. The regulatory regime mainly consisted of existing laws for sedition, defamation etc. Among the most famous examples, police raided prominent news site Malaysiakini in 2003 after the online publication of a letter declared seditious; computers and servers were confiscated, temporarily shutting down the site. In December 2010 the government announced its intention to publish “cyber sedition guidelines” in order to “counter the rising trend in sedition and libel cases involving online media and social sites.” Soon after, in January 2011, the Home Ministry revealed potential amendments to the Printing Presses and Publications Act that would bring online news Web sites within the act’s licensing regime. Malaysian civil society, bloggers, and journalists resoundingly condemned the move. Public out-cry has repeatedly forced BN coalition to look for different strategies. The same year The Economist was forced to black out parts of an article on the Bersih 2.0 protests for electoral reform but did not alter their online content.
Prime Minister Najib called for a review of censorship laws, to encompass both print and electronic media. However the international attention brought by censorship imposed on the Economist was not lost on PM Najib: “If the international media wants to criticize us, let them be. If it’s defamatory, we can resort to legal means,” said Najib. His government seems to lean towards a punitive approach versus a preventive usage of censorship.
Such instances have not stopped critical websites form proliferating. Malaysiakini, founded in 1999, is still ranked amongst the 15 most popular websites in the country. The Malaysian Insider, initiated as BN response to Malaysiakini, has recently increased coverage of opposition Pakatan Rakyat. Free Malaysia Today, founded in 2009, is a liberal daily that enjoys 300 000 page views per day. Extensive readership demonstrates that Malaysians are aware of the limitations of traditional media and are ready to support new media ventures.
The Malaysian government has developed strategies for countering this growth of new media. Recent tactics involve the strengthening of e-presence through social media and improvement of traditional media, featuring enough opposition coverage to satisfy the readers. However, these measures seem insufficient faced with the rising politicization of Malaysian internet-literate youth. During the april 2013 elections, Malaysiakini took down its pay-wall, providing free electoral coverage to all users. Information was accessed by over a million voters, despite reported cyber attacks on elections ‘eve. When the need for objective information is strongest, independent media reveal their true nature as a vector of change.
– Catherine Ador
Featured photo: Isabelle Sokolnicka/Political Bouillon. All Rights Reserved.