The press too needs more freedom to operate. But for this to happen, more support is needed not just from press freedom activists but from a broader spectrum of society, says Ross Tapsell.
Many analysts predict that as long as the internet exists free from laws and censorship, democratic change and greater press freedom will inevitably be the result. In Malaysia, there was also a certain amount of optimism amongst press freedom activists and some journalists during the reformasi period in 1998.
In the aftermath of Anwar’s sacking, analysts were concluding that the internet as a political medium and the medium of reformasi became virtually synonymous. Indeed, the Malaysian government found it difficult to censor the criticism from the Internet sent by pro-reformasi movement websites. Sites carrying anti-Mahathir stories mushroomed. At least 30 appeared within three months of Anwar Ibrahim’s arrest, including Laman Reformasi, Anwar Online, Jiwa Merdeka, Freemalaysia, and Reformasi Dot Com.
The alternative print press also increased its readership during this time. The circulation of Pas’ Harakah grew from 80000 prior to Anwar’s arrest in September 1998 to as much as 366000 by the end of 1999. Other newly established Malay-language magazines critical of the government were Tamadun, Detik, Wasilah and Eksklusif. And of course, Aliran Monthly’s circulation figures also rose from mid-1998 to mid-1999.
Sites which advocated ‘independent news’ gained in popularity. M G G Pillai (formerly of Far Eastern Economic Review and Reuters) was one of the first Malaysian journalists to see the potential of the internet when he formed an online mailing list Sang Kancil and later his website mggpillai.com, which featured commentaries and reporting about the political turmoil in Malaysia at that time. Kean Wong and Sharaad Kuttan, amongst others, started a project to fill the demand for critical analysis of the political issues of the time. They created the online news portals Saksi (Witness) and RadiQRadio.
But the most significant and long-lasting of these independent news websites was Malaysiakini, which was the creation of Steven Gan and Premesh Chandran in 1999. Malaysiakini became so popular during this period that Gan and Chandran were ranked 18th in Asiaweek’s 2001 annual ranking of the ‘50 most powerful people in the region’.
Press freedom lobby groups and NGOs sprouted. Out of these ventures came the Centre for Independent Journalism, the Malay language group ‘Kumpulan Aktivis Media Independen (Kami)’, the Writers Action for Media Indpendence (Wami) and Inisiatif Wartawan (an initiative by concerned journalists from the traditional and new media), which all pushed for an end to the restrictive licensing law (PPPA) and for an independent media council to be created. Charter 2000, created through Aliran, was also an important initiative in calling for freedom of expression to be respected and higher standards of professionalism in media reporting.
For a variety of reasons, many of which are contested by those who were involved in it, the movement for greater press freedom in Malaysia ultimately failed. The mainstream media industry largely didn’t support it with any great vigour, and the BN was adept at suppressing any attempts at reform inside the industry. Despite various attempts to push the government to do so, the PPPA was not abolished. Press freedom organisations, publications and movements petered out, or have decreased in importance.
Fast-forward to 2008, and we see a similar feeling of optimism. Analysts argued that BN failed to achieve the crucial two-thirds majority because of young voters who had access to many websites that offered alternative news and commentary. The Bersih 2.0 movement used social media intelligently and effectively to push for change, and has stated the need for a free and fair press as one of their key reforms. Raja Petra Kamarudin’s blog Malaysia Today reportedly gained a larger readership than the New Straits Times. The popular blog, Uppercaise, created by a former mainstream media editor, also gained in popularity.
The internet as a medium for free expression, which emerged during reformasi, was finally producing a platform for significant change in the form of social media, blogs, and crucially, more independent news. The persistence of independent news site Malaysiakini, and now the rise of the Malaysian Insider, and others such as the Nutgraph and Off the Edge magazine represented what activists were saying was the ‘next stage’ of the press freedom movement.
As mainstream newspaper circulation decreased, the hope is that these sites will force the mainstream media to implement serious reforms and allow its journalists to write more freely. This is Malaysian Press Freedom 2.0 in full flight.
But what will be the fate of press freedom 2.0? If it is not pushed strongly enough through the mainstream media, and if the Malaysian government implements repressive strategies, will the movement be circumvented once again?
The early signs do not look good. The government is now fully well are of the existence and usefulness of the alternative and social media. The government now employs ‘cybertroopers’ who slander the opposition on blogs and news sites, while various attempts to discredit the opposition, such as the videos (which many dismiss as fake) of Anwar Ibrahim having sex with a prostitute are distributed via the web.
The Malaysian government has attempted to crack down on key journalists and bloggers, including Raja Petra, since 2008. A number of reformers in the media industry have been kicked out in the past year and dismissed from their positions. Hata Wahari, who had spoken out for press freedom reforms within the National Union of Journalists in 2010, was fired from his newspaper job at Utusan Melayu in April 2011 for “tarnishing the image of his employer”.
Journalism sites that were established with great excitement have not been financially sustainable. Off the Edge continued for six years but made losses and was closed down in 2010. The Nutgraph shut the office and retrenched everyone in August 2010, although the site is still maintained.
Malaysia illustrates that the existence of new media does not necessarily mean the defeat of an authoritarian government’s stranglehold on power, nor does it correlate that reforms for greater freedom of the press are an inevitable consequence of the increasing use of social media. Significant reforms, including greater press freedom, are difficult to implement if there is a hostile ruling power intent on subverting independent journalism and a mainstream press continually unable, or unwilling, to oppose it.
Few journalists within the industry believe that even if Najib’s does fulfil his promise and repeal the PPPA, it will not have much effect on press freedom. Even if licences do not need to be renewed yearly, the Malaysian Home Minister can still remove it, and his decision cannot be challenged in court.
The press freedom activists who have worked so hard over the past 13 years to implement reforms all believe that wider change needs to occur in Malaysian society. If greater reforms for press freedom are going to happen in Malaysia, it needs more support from the mainstream media, NGOs and politicians, both in the opposition and perhaps even reformers within the government. As Malaysiakini founder Steven Gan said: “We can do our bit here at Malaysiakini, but we need a contribution from a lot of different actors.”
Ross Tapsell is a lecturer in Asian Studies at the Australian National University. His research is on press freedom in Southeast Asia.