Malaysia

Criticism Not Welcome Here

In Malaysia there are free elections, but no free press. Only on the Internet is it possible to find something other than "royal reporting." The independent website Malaysiakini promises "only the news that matters." By Clemens Vogel

photo: AP
Demonstration for greater freedom of the press in Malaysia

​​The political culture of Malaysia reminds one a little of Germany during the Adenauer era: here as then the form of democracy practiced features autocratic traits, economic success – and a docile press. Back then in Germany Rudolf Augstein brought his news magazine "Der Spiegel" into firing position as an "assault gun of democracy."

In Malaysia he probably wouldn't have been able to obtain a license. The country's radio and press belong either to the state, to the "United Malays National Organization" (UMNO) that has been in power since 1957, or to favorably disposed media tycoons. Only the Internet is free from licensing, because Malaysia is busy courting the New Economy. Steven Gan took advantage of the weak flank of this information cartel. Today his online newspaper "Malaysiakini" has taken on something of the role of assault gun for democracy in Malaysia.

Freedom of the press – a foreign concept?

"The government had a monopoly on the truth until the Internet appeared on the scene," said Editor-in-Chief Gan in an interview with DW-WORLD. In Malaysia a mixture of licensing policy, state spoon-feeding and pre-emptive self-censorship keeps the public arena free of debate.

Royal reporting is the order of the day, with an incomplete supply of information compounding the problem. And Premier Abdullah Badawi does not merely resort to heavy-handed censorship. "We have freedom of speech, but no freedom after speech," says Gan. There are laws against criticizing the courts and against general inciting of the public. The Internal Security Act (ISA) even provides for two years imprisonment without due process.

Recently tightened in an effort to fight terrorism, the law also threatens dissidents and journalists who do not toe the government line. And a defamation law can be used to drive commentators into bankruptcy: critics of major business figures have already been slapped with exorbitant fines. This restrictive virtual playpen made up of some 35 statutes paralyzes mental agility. The legislation is coupled with outright intimidation, as Gan found out in January 2003.

Spiegel affair à la Malaysia

Police raided the editorial offices of Malaysiakini and demanded that the author who had written a critical article in the Internet forum be turned in. A Spiegel affair à la Malaysia – only this time it wasn't a case of betraying military secrets, as in 1962 in Germany, but about criticism of the state ethnic policy. Malaysians tend to be favored over the Chinese and Indonesian minorities, finding it easier to get trainee positions, for example.

The author drew parallels to the racist Ku-Klux-Klan. "We do not betray any staff members or informants," Gan retorted to the police. 19 computers were confiscated. Pickets were organized spontaneously, and even journalists from the officially licensed media gave addresses to show their solidarity. Malaysiakini was allowed to stay in operation, the offending critic remained anonymous.

Only a partial success. There is simply not sufficient public resonance in Malaysia for sending a true signal for freedom of the press. But Gan promises: "After the raid, Malaysiakini remains what it has always been." The site reports on police brutality just as it does on the terror laws or gender issues. For Malaysiakini, painstaking fact checking is both a question of survival and an inherent part of how the site sees its mission.

Gan is not in the business of trying to influence people's opinions, but wants instead to provide them with information they cannot get anywhere else. And the response is encouraging: Malaysiakini boasts 100,000 hits a day. The team is made up of seven men and five women. They are all self-taught, since journalism studies do not exist in Malaysia. Gan, who studied architecture, first traveled through Asia as a "backpacker journalist" and then took a job at the major Malaysian newspaper, "The Sun," in 1994. After one of his columns was censored by the editor-in-chief, he left the paper in 1996 and founded Malaysiakini during the burgeoning dotcom boom.

Semi-Democracy

Economic progress has the standing of a state doctrine in Malaysia. The more monumental, the better: a 50-kilometer long "Multimedia Super-Corridor" is to be formed between the capital city of Kuala Lumpur and the airport by the year 2020.

Ex-Premier Mohammed Mahatir already laid the groundwork for this Malaysian "Silicon Valley" back in the '90s. The successor he put in power in 2003, Badawi, is seeing to it that his plans are carried forth, both economically and politically.

"No difference, but better PR," is Gan's comment on the change in leadership. The clever Islamic scholar even managed to keep the Islamists at bay at the elections in March. They lost three quarters of their 26 seats. Badawi's UMNO, on the other hand, gained support, winning 90 percent of the mandates.

This distribution of seats indicates why experts refer to Malaysia as a "semi-democracy." The voice of the opposition is hardly ever heard in the licensed mass media, and if they are mentioned at all, it is usual in a negative context, according to Gan.

The journalists from Malaysiakini are likewise excluded from participation: they cannot obtain press passes, making access to press conferences difficult. Premier Badawi did once jovially wave the Malaysiakini reporter in: "Come in!" Well meaning, and not bad as PR. But freedom of the press in Malaysia remains for the time being arbitrary and difficult to calculate.

Klemens Vogel

© DEUTSCHE WELLE/DW-WORLD.DE 2004

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