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Malaysian news site strives for dialogue

  • Story Highlights
  • Independent news Web site in Malaysia celebrates eighth anniversary
  • Malaysiakini editors seized on government's promise not to censor Internet
  • News organization still faces tough government scrutiny, editor says
  • Editor Steven Gan hopes multicultural nation can maintain dialogue on religion, race
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By Kevin Drew
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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (CNN) -- Inside a nondescript building in the gritty Bangsar district of south Kuala Lumpur rests (Malay for "Malaysia Now"), a newspaper covering Malaysia that exists solely in cyberspace.


Steven Gan: Self-censorship "is an obsession" in mainstream Malaysian media.

Its goal, says co-founder Steven Gan, is straightforward: to report on Malaysian political and social issues critically and objectively.

That can be a challenge in Malaysia. The media in the Southeast Asian nation face tough regulations from the government on what can be reported. And with ethnicity and religion as intertwining hot buttons, reporting on social issues in the multicultural nation of Malays, Chinese, Indians and other Asian groups can seem to be a tightrope.

Critical to its success, Gan says, is its reputation for accuracy. Malaysiakini has put itself on Malaysia's journalism map for its credibility and occasionally beating the competition. In 2005 the news organization made international headlines by breaking the news of a mobile phone clip showing a Chinese woman in police detention subjected to a humiliating search procedure.

As Malaysiakini celebrates its eighth birthday this month, Gan recently sat down with CNN and discussed the Web site and practicing journalism in Malaysia.

CNN: What is

GAN: The reason we set up Malaysiakini is because of the fact that we have tight control of the media in Malaysia. And we saw an opportunity here because of ... a loophole within the system.

We disagreed with him [former Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad] on a lot of issues, but on the issue of freedom of the Internet, we should give him some credit. He promised not to censor the Internet. He realized that in order to set up the multimedia corridor here ... he would have to offer, among other things, not just tax breaks but the fact that he would not censor the Internet. So, we decided to see whether he would stick to his promise.

They [government officials] were having a difficult time with Malaysiakini. There were a lot of attacks from the mainstream media, which is government controlled, against us. Ministers from time to time would issue statements against Malaysiakini, questioning our credibility, saying that we were pro-opposition and also attacking how we were funded. And eventually it resulted in a raid by the police about two years ago. They took away 19 of our computers.

But we have persevered.

CNN: Why in the English language?

GAN: We started off in English, partly because I'm an English (language) writer. That was a natural way for us to go. A lot of people here (in Malaysia) speak English -- most of Malaysia can understand. But then we realized that to get across to more people, you would also need to have a Chinese as well as a Malay language site. So Malaysiakini right now has four sections: English, Bahasa (Malay), Chinese, and a video section, as well.

CNN: How has Malaysiakini grown from the early days?

GAN: We started out [in 1999] very much as a guerilla outfit in the sense we were only three journalists. That was just before the 1999 general election. Looking back, I never thought we'd manage to survive that period, because three journalists trying to cover an election was just terrible, almost impossible. But even with that we managed to break a few new stories and I think we got noticed.

When we first went live it was just basically collecting e-mails of our friends and just sending them a message saying, 'Hey, we have this new Web site, check it out.' Eventually it went from a few hundred people to a thousand, then 5,000, and now close to about 300,000 readers.

When we first started there were two major questions that we had to answer. One was how to make an impact politically in the sense of how to get readership. Our solution for that was to become a credible source of information.

The other (objective) was that if you want to set up independent media you need to have independent financing. We started off thinking advertising was a possible model. We managed to survive the first year - there was still an Internet boom at that time.

Of course, 2000-2001 was a major Internet crash and people who would normally advertise on Malaysiakini were Internet start-ups. They all disappeared. We really had to find another solution. That was when we decided to switch to a pay model. It was a painful decision. We saw readership drop like a ton of bricks, but we managed to win them back.

CNN: Can you explain the idea behind the Asia 24/7 TV service on

GAN: The idea is to basically provide a site for independent broadcasters all around Asia. To post their videos and all that. However, I think that maybe that idea was a little ahead of its time. We launched 24/7 about two years back. We didn't manage to get enough content. There's just not enough independent broadcasters out there to sustain it. We are now trying to revamp that idea, but it's still too early to talk about it.

CNN: It's an intriguing idea, because most major news Web sites in North America and Europe are attached to either a print or TV organization, which feeds their sites' content. You tried flipping that model, where the Internet would be the primary carrier, and TV was simply a part of it.

GAN: I think there is no doubt that such a scenario will come. Maybe not now, but maybe in five to 10 years' time. The Internet will be the main medium where people get their content, whether it's text, video, whatever it is. It will not be TV or radio, per se, it will not be print, per se. I think all those elements will still be around, but in a different form. But they (other media) will have to evolve to survive. TV will have to evolve.

The Internet will eventually be the main medium. It will be the dominant medium, because it's able to deal with so many different forms of content in one place.

CNN: What is the level of traffic that Malaysiakini is currently attracting?

GAN: We are getting about 100,000 unique visitors a day. That would put us in the league with some of the major local newspapers out there. We are quite comfortable with what we have achieved. But for Malaysiakini to make another leap would perhaps require the country to have a higher penetration rate when it comes to broadband.

We've been waiting for that for the past few years. Broadband penetration in Malaysia is still pretty low, we're talking about 5 percent. It is partly because of government policy. We have a government that is not too sure whether we should move into that.

CNN: How is the Internet regulated in Malaysia?

GAN: The only difference between the Internet and the so-called traditional media is that to set up a Web site you don't need government approval. You don't need to apply for a license. That is a major distinction, that is the crucial difference.

In a sense we have a little bit more freedom. But in Malaysia, the Internet is not completely free. Because you still have laws out there that directly or indirectly infringe on press freedom, which has been used to check mainstream media and can be used to harass Internet media, as well. Things like being accused of spreading false news, the sedition act, malicious secrets act ... all those laws that exist apply for the Internet, as well.

On the police raid on Malaysiakini, the government used the sedition act, a law that is already in existence. We published a letter from one of our readers that they said was seditious.

I think the idea that the Internet is completely free is hyped up. But then I think there's no doubt the Internet has made an impact and it has been a useful tool. But we recognize that the government still has a lot of control.

CNN: Your Web site is now self-sustaining financially, correct?

GAN: It is self-sustaining. We have subscriptions, side businesses like book publishing. When we went to subscription service we had to develop our own technology, because the technologies for sale were too expensive. We have now perfected our own technology to a point to where we can sell it.

CNN: Tell me a little bit about your staff. Many look young. What is their background?

GAN: Most of the experienced journalists are from the print media. Many started at mainstream newspapers. But the journalists, many are fresh out of university. We decided that it's much easier for us to train them rather than hire people from mainstream media. Because when it comes to reporting, it sometimes is difficult for us to change the mindset of journalists who've been working for years in the mainstream media, coming from a very controlled environment to an environment that is relatively free. They find it very hard to cope with that kind of situation.

CNN: Can you explain that more? How much self-censorship is there in Malaysia?

GAN: Self-censorship is an obsession in the mainstream media. It happens every day. The editors will tell you what to write, what not to write. You get ministers calling up all the time. They issue directives. They sometimes send out letters, telling what the guidelines, what can be written, how it can be written. Sometimes they organize briefings for the editors. That's the kind of censorship you get.

CNN: How is the media world looking at you?

GAN: Internationally, people are interested in our model. Not our content, but our model. Our thinking is that we're not going to compete with mainstream media in sports coverage, for example, because sports is not something you can censor. If a game ends 2-0, it's 2-0, period. You cannot say it's 2-1. We compete in areas that we think we can do better, and that would be political news and social news. We're one of the few news Web sites that is able to survive based on subscriptions.

CNN: What is taboo to report on in Malaysia?

GAN: In Malaysia, religion, race ... those are the two main issues that we would be more careful with. It doesn't mean that we won't do them. In fact, we have a pretty vibrant debate in our discussion forum. I feel like we do need to talk about those issues.

Malaysia is a very complex society. It is multiracial, multilingual, multi-religious ... multi-everything! The problems are so complex that I don't think we should allow the government alone to solve them. It is up to all Malaysians to come together, to come up with a solution. And to do that, they will need to keep talking to each other. We are providing that forum.

I think Malaysiakini will be one of the very few news media in Malaysia that cuts across racial and religious backgrounds in a fair-minded manner, in an unemotional manner. In a way that they are all looking for solutions. In a manner where sometimes we have to agree to disagree. I think that's important. You cannot make compromises if you do not know how the other side feels.

CNN: Was there a moment when you realized Malaysiakini would work?

GAN: I don't think there has been any moment (laughs). I think we're still struggling, even today. I don't think we are successful yet. We're not making a hell of a lot of money. We're definitely not in debt, which is a good thing. We're getting there, but we're definitely not like Google.

We still need to ensure that we continue to come up with content that will appeal to Malaysians to the point where they are willing to pay for our content. Somehow we need to get through to advertisers out there. They're still not coming around, because they're scared. Because in Malaysia, politics and business are closely linked.

I'm happy we've managed to survive in a relatively unscathed manner. But I don't think we're at a point where we can say we made it.

CNN: Where do you see Malaysiakini in five-10 years?

GAN: It's really hard to say. If the broadband penetration is high enough - up to 60 percent, 70 percent -- than I would say our future would be very bright. But we'll have to wait for that to happen. It will take some years to go. It's inevitable.

I think we're already successful in terms of making an impact. But we aim to be successful financially. Making money is not really what we're in here for, I think. Our aim here is to play a role in the democratization process in Malaysia, and that's always been our major aim.

CNN: One last question. What does it mean to be Malaysian?

GAN: I don't think you can get just one answer. In Malaysia the issues of race and religion are so overwhelming that if you ask a Malay Muslim you'll get one answer. If you ask a non-Muslim person such as Chinese, you'll get a different answer.

I'd like to see the issues of race and religion not be the dominant criteria when it comes to how we live as Malaysians. I hope that I will see that day.

I want Malaysiakini to play a role in bringing Malaysians together and to talk and keep talking. I think problems will start if they aren't talking. What is important for Malaysiakini is to get them to keep talking to each other, which is something you don't see in the mainstream media.

I'd love to see the day when Malaysia would not think about race and religion whatsoever. It would be like elsewhere, where religion and race just happen to be in the background. It won't be a major criteria when it comes to applying for licenses, applying for scholarships, whatever.

But it's still a long way to go. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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