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Malaysiakini – rising above challenges, committed to media freedom

Photograph: Benedict Lopez

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Benedict Lopez reports on two decades of independent journalism by Malaysia’s top choice for online news.

Last night, I attended the 20th anniversary dinner of Malaysiakini at a hotel in Bangsar. Nearly 1,000 guests, including Malaysiakini staff, past and present, turned up to celebrate this auspicious occasion.

Some of the notable figures who attended were politicians Anwar Ibrahim, Lim Kit Siang, Syed Husin Ali and Sivarasa Rasiah and commentators Tajuddin Rasdi and Kadir Jasin. But no politician gave an address at the dinner to maintain Malaysiakini’s independence.

I had a chance to speak briefly with Malaysiakini editor-in-chief Steven Gan, who highlighted to me Malaysiakini’s brief history.

When asked for his views about the future of the online portal, Gan said, “With the change in the media landscape, Malaysiakini foresees more competition. As a measure to sustain our competitive edge, we will be investing more in investigative and data journalism.”

Perceptive readers of the local media in Malaysia used to lament the dearth of information and lack of objectivity in the mainstream print media.

In all fairness to journalists and their editors in the traditional media, they faced constraints, especially the requirement for annual renewal of their publishing permits under the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 – which hung like a Sword of Damocles over them. Under the act, the home minister was given absolute discretion to grant, revoke and suspend permits.

But things changed with the advent of the internet: alternative media emerged as an increasingly important source of news that could be easily accessed in any part of the world.

READ MORE:  A thousand cuts to press freedom

Unlike the print media, news portals have been able to reduce resources spent on production and distribution. But the new media still have to adhere to the country’s laws such as the Official Secrets Act and the Sedition Act and to contend with potential defamation suits.

Still, the new media have filled a vacuum and grown popular for their accessibility and speed in news reporting.

It was against this backdrop that Malaysiakini emerged on the local media scene as one of the early well-known news portals. It went live on 20 November 1999, at a time when Malaysia and the rest of the world were worried about the Y2K bug that was supposed to hit networks and internet sites on 1 January 2000 – a threat which failed to materialise.

Over the past 20 years, Malaysiakini, co-founded by CEO Premesh Chandran and Gan, has reported on five general elections and numerous by-elections.

It also experienced dark days when three of its journalists were arrested. Other challenging obstacles included cyber attacks, evictions from press conferences and at least five police raids on its premises.

The writer (right) with the Selangor State Assembly member for Bukit Gasing, Rajiv Rishyakaran, at the Malaysiakini dinner last night

With a readership base of more than 2.5 million every month, Malaysiakini is now published in four languages – English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil. Those behind the news portal believe that free media are essential for a country’s progress. The portal plays a major role in keeping readers abreast of current affairs, thereby holding the government accountable.

Even during challenging times, Malaysiakini has remained unwavering and resolute with a continued commitment to publishing Malaysians news and views that matter most, without fear or favour – the hallmark of an independent media organisation.

READ MORE:  A thousand cuts to press freedom

Despite setbacks, Malaysiakini has remained steadfast to a free society’s fundamental tenets: freedom of speech, human rights, labour rights, civil liberties and the continued fight against corruption.

Along the way, Malaysiakini has won numerous local and international awards and accolades:

  • Press Freedom Award by Reporters Without Borders (2000)
  • International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists (2000)
  • 50 Movers and Shakers of the New Economy by The Edge (2000)
  • Free Media Pioneer Award by the International Press Institute (2001)
  • Human Rights Award by the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) (2012)
  • National Sovereignty Medal by the Malaysian government (2013)
  • Investigative Reporting Award of Excellence by the Society of Publishers in Asia (2015)
  • Breaking News Award for Excellence by the Society of Publishers Asia (Sopa) (2019)

Looking back, Malaysiakini has every reason to celebrate its 20th anniversary with much satisfaction. It can take a walk down memory lane with a sense of fulfilment, knowing it has reported numerous newsworthy events, sometimes putting the traditional media in the shade.

Since its inception, Malaysiakini, like Aliran, has managed to fill a void and become the conscience of many ordinary Malaysians who once yearned for free and fair reporting and analyses of important events – definitely a welcome respite after years of only depending on the mundane and predictable local print media.

Thanks for dropping by! The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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