Malaysia's hounded press grapples with censors' shadow
A small website is one of the few news providers trying to shake off decades of authoritarian rule, writes Tim Cribb
International watchdogs are reporting a significant improvement in press freedom in Malaysia since the end of former authoritarian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad's 22-year term as leader.
'But things haven't changed that much,' said Steven Gan, editor of online news site Malaysiakini.
In Hong Kong this weekend to present the 2005 Human Rights Press Awards, Gan said that while there was less 'direct harassment' under Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who took over from Dr Mahathir in October 2003, 'the threats are still around'.
Malaysiakini is a vocal voice in the Malaysian media in its criticism of the government and its fight against corruption. The site's office was raided in 2003, and police took 19 computers and servers.
'The threat of legal action by politicians and the reluctance of mainstream media to criticise the government reinforces a climate of self-censorship in Malaysia,' Gan said, adding that 'self-censorship is an obsession'.
'It happens not just every day but every hour, every minute.'
Gan said editors in Malaysia closely scrutinised the content of stories and even cartoons for anything that might embarrass or upset the government.
'It happens all the time,' he said. The consequence was that journalists were reluctant to go against the flow and simply stopped fighting to break stories.
In 2001, Gan, 42, won the International Press Freedom Award and Malaysiakini received the Free Media Pioneer award from the Vienna-based International Press Institute.
His big story was based on the deaths of 59 inmates at the Semenyih immigration detention camp near Kuala Lumpur in 1995. His newspaper, The Sun, refused to publish it, and he passed the story to human rights activist Irene Fernandez, who was subsequently charged with spreading 'false news'.
Gan later resigned from the paper and worked for The Nation in Bangkok for several years, before returning to Malaysia in 1999 to set up Malaysiakini (www.malaysiakini.com) with fellow journalist Premesh Chandran.
Malaysia's information ministry still does not recognise Malaysiakini journalists, which Gan said 'makes it a bit difficult to get into official press conferences'.
And he said police 'are very upset about many of our stories ... especially dealing with corruption and brutality'. They refused to have any dealings with the website, but journalists in the mainstream media kept Malaysiakini supplied on an anonymous basis.
Gan said Malaysiakini ironically owed its survival in part to Dr Mahathir's push for Malaysia to become a major hub for information technology - as he pledged there would be no censorship of the internet. The site does not need an annual licence, which serves to gag the print and broadcast media, but Gan said that Malaysiakini did not have the reach of the mainstream media, claiming just 50,000 readers a day.
He said Malaysiakini did reach an influential readership of professionals, decision-makers, civil servants and politicians, 'so any issue we report on the government has to respond'.
Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) reports increasing attempts to hobble online information providers in Malaysia. It said the country's elections commission banned 'defamatory' material or the raising of 'sensitive issues' during campaigning for the March 2004 parliamentary elections. Neither 'defamatory' nor 'sensitive issues' were defined, the RSF observed.
The organisation said hacking had become a regular tactic used against Malaysiakini and against websites and blogs deemed critical of the administration.
The International Press Institute said in its 2004 World Press Freedom Review that 'the government-controlled mainstream media' in Malaysia 'are carefully testing their limits'.
The return of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim to the political sphere as an adviser to the opposition parties after serving six years for sodomy is a new factor to be considered, but Gan said it was too early to say 'how strong that factor will be'.
'His first task is to unite the opposition, which is pretty divided over race, religion, language, all that,' he said. 'He would be one of the few people with the ability to bring everyone together.
'But there's talk he may go back to [ruling party] Umno, because he still harbours the ambition to become prime minister and he can only do that through Umno.'
Gan said that in the short term, if there was to be change, it would have to come from within the 'highly factionalised' Umno, where a fight is under way about how the country should be run.
The opposition Islamic PAS was undergoing its own internal fight, 'between the more liberal in the party and the more extremist - the liberal group is gaining ground'.
'But I think in the short term, and we are looking at 10 to 15 years, it will be Umno reforming itself, though that will not happen if there is no pressure from outside, pressure from the media, civil society and the opposition parties.'
Of the more reformist leadership of Mr Abdullah, Gan said 'they have managed to make some changes, and I think that will continue'.
'There are some signs that the media is a bit more open compared to the days of Mahathir, but of course there is a limit to how far they can go.'
Malaysiakini, a subscriber service with 14 reporters and editorial production staff, continues to profit from its focus on politics and social issues and plans to launch coverage in traditional Chinese characters in August or September to complement its reporting in English and Bahasa.
'Journalism is coming under tremendous challenges because of the internet, where you have all sorts of people who claim to be journalists putting out less than accurate information,' he said. 'There is a lot more pressure on print and television to respond, which means problems with accuracy, and people taking more liberties with facts.'
Gan cited the case of The New York Times, where a journalist, claiming competitive pressures, fabricated stories. 'That has a great impact on journalism and how the public views journalists,' he said.
Steven Gan will address the 10th Hong Kong Human Rights Press Awards at noon today at the Foreign Correspondents' Club, and will speak at 6pm today at the Amnesty International Asia-Pacific Regional Office in Wan Chai.