In Other Words

Malaysia’s Untethered Net

Malaysiakini.com Feb. 26, 2007, Kuala Lumpur What happens when a nation’s anticorruption chief is accused of corruption? Not much, if you’re in Malaysia. That’s what whistleblower Mohamad Ramli Manan learned after filing a report to the police last summer detailing corruption and criminal activity on the part of his boss, Zulkipli Mat Noor, the director-general ...

Malaysiakini.com
Feb. 26, 2007, Kuala Lumpur

What happens when a nation’s anticorruption chief is accused of corruption? Not much, if you’re in Malaysia. That’s what whistleblower Mohamad Ramli Manan learned after filing a report to the police last summer detailing corruption and criminal activity on the part of his boss, Zulkipli Mat Noor, the director-general of Malaysia’s Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA). For seven months, Ramli heard nothing. Then his report was anonymously leaked to a nongovernmental organization that made the findings public at a press conference in late February. But neither the chief nor the whistleblower was mentioned by name.

Thankfully, the editors of Malaysiakini, a gutsy news Web site based in Kuala Lumpur, know an important story when they hear it. After a few hours of working the phones, their reporters not only learned the name of the whistleblower, but also that the accused "senior ACA official" was Zulkipli. They secured an interview with Ramli and later that same day posted a complete account with the headline, "Explosive allegations against ACA chief." Malaysia’s active community of bloggers quickly pounced on the story. The ensuing publicity snowballed so rapidly that the mainstream media were soon compelled to follow suit. Public pressure on the government grew, and one month later Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi announced that Zulkipli was stepping down.

This sequence of events — in which Malaysiakini broke a news story that grew so big that other more mainstream media had no choice but to pick it up — perfectly illustrates a pattern that has become typical since the Web site’s establishment eight years ago. Malaysiakini was the creation of Steven Gan and Premesh Chandran, two young journalists who left the tabloid newspaper The Sun after it refused to publish their investigation into deadly conditions at one of Malaysia’s migrant labor camps. Believing that political control had corrupted the values of good journalism in the mainstream media, their plan was to bring high-quality, independent reportage to the Internet. Gan and Chandran timed the launch of Malaysiakini to coincide with the country’s 1999 general election. Almost immediately, the Web site gained notoriety by exposing that a Chinese-language newspaper had digitally manipulated a group photo of ruling-party politicians to remove an image of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. Since then, Malaysiakini has proven that it isn’t beholden to the powers that be. According to R. Nadeswaran, current deputy editor of The Sun, if opposition parties hold press conferences, mainstream media outlets would not report on them. "But Malaysiakini would," he says. "And then other papers cover Malaysiakini."

In a country where journalists must work under the restrictions of an Internal Security Act, a Sedition Act, and an Official Secrets Act, Malaysian journalists are highly constrained by the law. Although outright censorship is rare, most news organizations are either directly owned by or indirectly linked to the ruling National Front coalition, and avoid reporting on anything that reflects unfavorably on the government. But there is an unlikely loophole for online news organizations and bloggers. In a 1997 speech in California, where he was courting overseas investment for high-tech industries, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad pledged a no-censorship policy for the Internet. Online journalists and bloggers are subject to the laws regulating content, but they need not fear losing their permits to publish because, ironically, they are not officially recognized as journalists. Although countries such as Indonesia and Singapore also do not require production licenses for cyberjournalists, what makes Malaysiakini unique are its high standards of journalistic professionalism. As Gan takes pains to point out, Malaysiakini is a news provider and therefore subject to strict standards of good journalism, including verification and "not peddling hearsay as news."

Malaysiakini‘s reach extends deep into Malaysian society. Although the site has only 5,000 paid subscribers, more than 100,000 different computers access it every day, and Chandran, Malaysiakini‘s energetic CEO, estimates that its content reaches about 250,000 readers. It’s not just the number of readers that makes the site powerful, but also who those readers are. One of Malaysiakini’s greatest admirers was also the subject of the Web site’s first major story: Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister and leading opposition figure who served a six-year prison term on charges widely believed to be politically motivated. "Malaysiakini has independence [and] credibility," he says. "It’s the only avenue we have. The other media have an instruction to block us out."

But Editor Steven Gan insists that Malaysiakini is not an opposition publication. According to Gan, Malaysiakini tries to keep the news as factual and as nonpartisan as possible. “The media landscape in Malaysia is highly politicized,” he wrote in an e-mail interview. "Malaysians have not come across a truly independent media until Malaysiakini came into the picture. That is why the government has tried time and again to dismiss us as an opposition voice. Over the years, we have proven otherwise. That’s something which the government does not know how to deal with."

As in neighboring Singapore, Malaysian government officials believe that the press should serve the development interests of the nation, and they don’t take kindly to the idea of journalists holding government officials accountable. In response to the ACA corruption exposé, the Internal Security Ministry issued a warning to mainstream newspapers not to quote and publish "anti-government articles" from online news portals — a directive clearly aimed at Malaysiakini. But Malaysiakini not only reported on the circular, tagging it with the headline, “Don’t quote websites and blogs, media told,” it also posted the original letter on its site. It was a brave move in a country where there are plenty of rumors, but little "proof."

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