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OCTOBER 16, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 15

Cracks in the System
Malaysia's online news sites are starting to lure readers away from conservative newspapers
By DAVID LIEBHOLD Kuala Lumpur

Journalist Stephen Gan was so fed up with the pro-government slant of Malaysia's mass media that he moved to Bangkok three years ago to take a job with local daily The Nation. Late last year, however, he returned to Kuala Lumpur to set up an Internet "newspaper," Malaysiakini.com (Malaysia Now). With a modest $132,000 in funds, the 37-year-old Gan got it up and running with just three junior reporters, giving himself a 70% pay cut in the process. "I came back," he says, "because I believe strongly in press freedom, in journalists being allowed to do their job."

Attitudes like that help explain the shakeup under way in Malaysia's media. Malaysiakini.com now claims 116,000 readers a day, more than some established dailies. And as it grows, many of the country's print and broadcast media are shrinking. According to market research firm AC Nielsen, readership has fallen significantly over the past two years for most Malaysian newspapers, including Berita Harian (down 30%), Utusan Malaysia (down 27%) and the New Straits Times (down 34%). Nielsen interprets the numbers as possibly indicating that people are spending more time on the Internet and pay TV and less with print.

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Politics is surely also a factor, as the established dailies continue to exercise self-censorship, particularly in reporting the long-running story of the arrest and conviction of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. "The Anwar affair made people realize that they weren't getting both sides of the story," says Zulkifli Sulong, editor of Harakah, the newspaper of the opposition Islamic Party. By reporting openly on the Anwar saga, the paper saw its circulation rise five-fold. The government responded in March by restricting street sales; Zulkifli then launched Harakahdaily.com, a website that now claims more than 140,000 page views a day.

It is doubtful that this explosion of press freedom is what Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had in mind when he began encouraging Malaysians to embrace information technology in the mid-1990s. He has put computers in schools, allowed the use of pension funds to purchase home computers and built a high-tech development zone in Kuala Lumpur. Billions of dollars have already been invested in creating the so-called Multimedia Super Corridor, though skeptics still have doubts. "The MSC plan was back-to-front from the beginning," says Rehman Rashid, editor of Agendamalaysia.com, a website that specializes in analysis and opinion. "The main point of IT is that it renders geography irrelevant." Indeed, many of the servers that distribute Malaysia's new Internet publications are located outside of the country, in places like Vancouver (Malaysiakini.com) and Auckland (Agendamalaysia.com). "Mahathir has created a monster," says Gan. "The people who have benefited most from the government's Internet push have been the opposition."

Although online readership has declined somewhat from the peaks reached during the Anwar trial, editors of the new websites believe the number of users is stabilizing and will grow again. But just as Mahathir's perceived heavy-handedness seems to have helped spark the expansion of Internet publishing, a political thaw could hurt it. "In the past few months there has been much more critical thinking in the mainstream media," says Kadir Jasin, chairman of Malaysia's national news agency Bernama. He says mass media organs—most of which are linked to the ruling coalition—are responding to reform within the coalition's leading party, the United Malays National Organization, in the wake of its poor performance in last November's general election. "If these changes take hold, outlets like Malaysiakini.com could become redundant very quickly," says Kadir.

Whatever the political currents, the Internet also has a role to play in raising the standards of the country's press. "There's a hell of a lot of bad journalism in Malaysia," says Sharaad Kuttan, co-editor of Saksi.com (Witness), a news site dedicated to journalistic independence and ethics. Malaysiakini.com's Gan similarly sees his mission as improving the quality of the nation's media. Despite criticism from some readers, he has published articles unflattering to the opposition, as well as a lengthy dialogue with a government minister. "We want to provide Malaysians with a credible source of information," he says.

Malaysiakini.com claims it is already covering half of its operating costs from advertising revenue, while using only a fifth of its ad capacity. In the process of promoting press freedom, Gan and his partners may also turn a profit. "Nobody thought you could make money out of a website that is critical of the government," he laughs. "But it's on the cards. The potential is there." Who says the truth has to hurt?

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