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Creating free spaces and alternative ideas

Each time the state narrows the space for freedom of the media, activists have bounced back with creative ways to get their message across

by Mustafa Kamal Anuar and Anil Netto
Aliran Monthly Vol 25 (2005): Issue 9

mus anil said
start_quote (1K)Though (Said Zahari and his colleagues) did not succeed in stopping the takeover of Utusan (in 1961), they did plant the seeds of the struggle for media freedom in Malaysia.
end_quote (1K)
Mustafa and Anil, seen here together with press freedom icon Said (centre) in 2005.

We are here to talk to you about the struggle to create free spaces for alternative ideas to thrive. As you know, some societies consider themselves to be democratic because they have elections every five years. But democracy is much, much more than this ­ it also means a society where debate and dissent is encouraged and flourishes. A democratic society is one where everybody can express critical thoughts without fear.

For such freedom of expression to thrive, the media have to be freed not only from the shackles of state control and self-censorship. They must also be freed from the tentacles of corporate interests and their stifling agenda. The real test for any democratic society is the extent to which there is room and space for alternative ideas to flourish, for a diversity of views to be aired in the public sphere.

Empowering oppressed groups

Charter 2000-Aliran has been trying to raise awareness of the need for free spaces so that minorities, oppressed groups and marginalised communities can express themselves and make their voices heard. Such groups include women, workers and rural farmers, ethnic minorities, the lower income groups, migrant workers, refugees, detainees, critics and university/college students. In the process of articulating their views, these groups will empower and liberate themselves from the shackles of oppression.

Free spaces are also necessary to present alternative interpretations of development trends. We need the space to fashion an alternative model of development ­ one that is free from superpower hegemony, one that promotes social justice, safeguards the environment and narrows income inequalities. These free spaces will also allow the voices of little people to be heard instead of always being suffocated by the stifling agenda of Big Business and Power. It will also facilitate the emergence of a society based on universal values common to all our spiritual traditions ­ values such as justice, freedom, respect for human rights...

In Malaysia, unfortunately, the free spaces we have are so limited, it is difficult for alternative ideas to be heard. The campaign for greater media freedom is a long-term struggle to create such spaces. Over the years, many have tried to expand the space for alternative views against formidable odds. But each attempt to expand the space for alternative views was followed by crushing sledgehammer blows against press freedom. Nonetheless, media freedom activists and civil society groups refused to surrender in their struggle to create alternative spaces.

Flashback to 1961: The journey begins

Let us take you back in time to some of the milestones in the struggle to create alternative spaces. We begin in 1961, the year when Utusan Melayu editor Said Zahari and his colleagues courageously went on strike to oppose the takeover of Utusan Melayu by UMNO. Though they did not succeed in stopping the takeover of Utusan, they did plant the seeds of the struggle for media freedom in Malaysia.

In the early 1970s, the New Straits Times (M) Press group came under the ownership of a company that was associated with UMNO. The media was co-opted by the state in the guise of “developmental journalism”. In other words, the media and the state were supposedly partners in national development.

Light, darkness and hope

But it wasn’t all pessimism. Civil society was beginning to find its voice. In the 1970s, Utusan Konsumer began articulating consumer rights issues. And then Aliran Monthly emerged as a beacon for reforms and democratic change. This heralded a new climate of relatively freer media and we saw this when The Star began displaying a more independent voice in the 1980s.

But by 1987, darkness descended again. The Star and two other major newspapers were suspended during Operation Lalang. Indeed, Malaysia under the Mahathir administration bore witness to a series of new laws and amendments that restricted press freedom. For example, the Printing Presses and Publications Act and the Official Secrets Act were further amended to essentially curtail media freedom. The concentration of media ownership too further constrained the space for freedom of expression.

And then from darkness, fresh hope again: the onset of reformasi, sparked by the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim from government in 1998, coincided with the arrival of the Internet. These proved to be catalysts for the mushrooming of alternative, independent and critical websites in the country.

Aliran and other civil society groups launched their websites from 1997 onwards. Malaysiakini, the country’s first Internet newspaper, was born in late 1999. These websites provided even more space for alternative views and independent news to be disseminated to a larger audience.

More blows - and press freedom groups are born

But then, more blows for media freedom followed: a crackdown of the Malay press in 2000 after the reformasi-inspired opposition inroads in the 1999 general election. For instance, Harakah had its frequency slashed from twice a week to twice a month, while other publications had their permits terminated.

am0509 The year 2000, however, was also the year Aliran launched Charter 2000 with the primary objective of pushing for media reform in the country. This initiative has received substantial backing and endorsements from civil society groups who care for media freedom. Another Malay press freedom group, KAMI, was formed.

Again, the forces against press freedom rallied to squeeze the limited space available. The takeover in 2001 of Nanyang Siang Pau and China Press by Huaren Management Sdn Bhd, the investment arm of the MCA, was a black day in the struggle for greater media freedom.

But out of the ashes of the takeover, a slew of media freedom groups and committees emerged, taking up the battle cry for press freedom in Malaysia to a new level. New independent Chinese websites such as and were set up.

A giant gobbles up the competition - but new websites emerge

New challenges emerged though: attempts to crack down on cyberspace, typified in 2003 by the police raid on Malaysiakini and attempts to restrict political satire group Instant Cafe Theatre.

And then in 2005, a huge conglomerate, Media Prima, has been gobbling up television stations such as TV3, 8tv, Channel 9 and possibly ntv7. Media Prima already owns some major newspapers and up-and-coming radio stations. It is the latest development in media consolidation involving giant media firms owned by a few powerful individuals that are squeezing out independent voices.

Nonetheless, civil society groups and alternative media continue to respond to these challenges. Among the latest of these is the Chinese language Merdeka Review and Malaysia Today.

As the public grows increasingly sceptical of mainstream journalism, more and more concerned Malaysians have ventured into cyberspace and turned overnight into citizen journalists and public interest bloggers disseminating alternative and grassroots views.

Creative expression in the arts

Despite the constraints, cultural bodies and writers have sought creative ways to express themselves in the public domain. People in the arts are experimenting in theatre, transmitting alternative ideas to receptive audiences. In Penang, for instance, Janet Pillai and Tan Sooi Beng have been using theatre to inculcate the values of multiculturalism and justice particularly among children. Independent film-makers too have begun to express themselves through motion pictures, a few of them even winning international awards.

With the availability of the Internet as a tool, the idea of having a media monitoring mechanism using a blog was raised. Aliran’s Charter 2000, aided by a number of independent volunteers monitored the performance of the mainstream media in the run up to the 2004 general election, and came up with the dismal ­ if predictable - conclusion that the mainstream media were acting as propagandists for the Barisan Nasional. The media monitoring has continued even after the general election to this day.

Join us in the struggle

Looking back, we can see that over the years, the struggle for media freedom has been a long and arduous one, punctuated by fresh hopes and crushing blows. We salute those media freedom activists and civil society groups, courageous journalists and citizen bloggers and all those who have persevered in the face of formidable odds. They give us hope.

We want to encourage all of you to join us in this struggle as well. With your solidarity, we are confident that, no matter what the obstacles, nothing can crush our hope of creating free spaces for alternative ideas to thrive in our quest for a more just, democratic society.

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The above presentation was made at Aliran’s high tea celebration in Kuala Lumpur on 25 September 2005 to mark 25 years of Aliran Monthly

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