In Malaysia, there’s eagerness and a bit of skepticism about what appears to be the beginning of a new dawn for press freedom.
“It’s a long time coming,” Kevin Khor, a 50-year-old IT manager, said while skimming through the day’s top stories on his phone.
The change is a direct result of the country’s May elections which marked the first win by the opposition since Malaysia gained independence from Britain in 1957.
For decades, the country’s mainstream media were largely under the government’s thumb. Political parties and businesses with ties to them, and the government, owned major press outlets. The government made it difficult for independent news outlets to get licenses to broadcast and print newspapers as well as magazines.
“So the previous regime indeed controlled the media through the issuances of licenses or permits which gave it the ability to pull back anything it didn’t like,” said Gayathry Venkiteswaran, an assistant professor of media and politics at the University of Nottingham Malaysia. “It was a way for them to also make sure that media companies that were controlled by their sort of contacts, cronies basically, were able to sensor content and to make sure that pro-government content was actually put out.”
Looking to other sources
The mainstream media often downplayed or dismissed concerns about rising living costs and allegations of massive corruption against Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was ousted in the elections.
“So the media provided that false narrative,” Venkiteswaran said. “That there was no problem with corruption, no problem with governance.”
The coverage by the mainstream press prompted many voters to turn to other sources, including online websites and social media.
“People generally do not trust the mainstream media,” said Khor. “People would go to the alternative media on the internet to look for better and fairer news reports.”
The most high profile alternative media outlet in the country is news site Malaysiakini, which is known for its aggressive political coverage, including stories about corruption. “We report on a lot of stories that mainstream media is not reporting on,” said Malaysiakini’s editor-in-chief, Steven Gan.
The consequences have included numerous police raids and several of its journalists, including Gan, have been arrested. “In the first police raid, they took all of our computers,” Gan said. “It was an attempt to shut us down.”
Alleged scandals covered
After the May elections, with a new government giving regular updates on the alleged corruption scandal, Malaysia’s mainstream media are covering it. Recent newspaper headlines include the words “graft” and “stolen funds.” Critics, however, say it only demonstrates a shifting of allegiances.
“So the sense of being loyal to the government has remained even though the actors have changed, which is not what we want from the media,” said Venkiteswaran, the assistant professor at the University of Nottingham Malaysia, adding that professional training is desperately needed at mainstream news outlets. “I think it’s an inability to really understand what your role is as a journalist. I think it’s the fact that you’ve been in a mindset of serving the powers rather than serving the public.”
There are also concerns about whether the new ruling coalition will keep its campaign commitment to free speech. After the election, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad suggested a controversial fake news law that went into effect in April should be reviewed instead of revoked. Critics of the law say the former government passed it to muzzle criticism.
When Mahathir, now 92, was in his first stint as prime minister from 1981 to 2003, he suspended several newspapers.
“It’s pretty ironic, isn’t it? You know the fact that you have a prime minister now, who during his first stint as prime minister was never known to be friendly to the media, definitely an enemy of the press,” Gan said. “He won it (this election) on the back of the free media, back of independent media.”
Gan said he is optimistic the new government will live up to its commitments for a free press. He also pledged that Malaysiakini will be just as tough on the new ruling coalition as it was on the old one.
“We will tell truth to power. We will hold power to account,” Gan said. “No sacred cows, definitely.”