< Malaysia's Freedom of Speech, Online and Off

Transcript

Friday, December 09, 2011

BOB GARFIELD:

Malaysia is another country struggling to tamp down on information run amok. Dozens of newspapers, magazines, nearly ten different TV stations and even more radio serve this nation of 28 million, an abundance of media due in no small part to Malaysia's multicultural, multilingual status. Roughly 60 percent of the population speaks Malay, the national language; 30 percent are Chinese who speak any number of dialects and 10 percent are Indian who mostly speak Tamil.

Each group has a range of media in its native tongue and often members of different ethnicities can't understand each other. But, as OTM producer Jamie York reports, they share one notable detail, and that is...

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] 

JAMIE YORK:

And that is utter, unthreatening threatening, unctuous blandness.

FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:

Another group of companies has added US- based Tutti Frutti Frozen Yogurt to its Food & Beverage Division.

MALE CORRESPONDENT:

And here's something that should entice your taste buds. Time Out Magazine has identified 18 best rest - restaurants in Kuala Lumpur.

FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:

Eyecon is an optometry network by current eyecare practitioners from every state in Malaysia who believe that the way forward is in branding.

JAMIE YORK:

That blandness is because they're all governed by a near-perfect form of government censorship. But near is not complete, and there lies the beginning of a tale.

In 2010, Reporters Without Borders ranked Malaysia 141st in press freedom out of 178 countries, in the same company as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan.

MASJALIZA HAMZAH:

And there was quite a bit of hoo-ha because Malaysia was ranked lower than Singapore. And Malaysians were a bit upset about that!

JAMIE YORK:

Masjaliza Hamzah, a former reporter who runs the Center for Independent Journalism, says that when it comes to censorship, Malaysians' competitiveness outweighs their cynicism.

MASJALIZA HAMZAH:

Not so much that that they've consistently been ranked in the lower one-third, that wasn't an issue. [LAUGHS] The issue was that Singapore was ranked higher than we were.

JAMIE YORK:

Reporters who overstep their bounds get "the call" from government officials or notes about what they may not discuss. And Malaysian media outlets must be annually licensed by the government. Those licenses can be yanked if you offend this Islamic state.

ZAHAROM NAIN:

Recently, with the controversies surrounding cartoon images of the Prophet Mohammad.

JAMIE YORK:

Zaharom Nain is a journalist turned journalism professor.

ZAHAROM NAIN:

One newspaper in East Malaysia covered the story, unfortunately, had a photograph of someone reading the original newspaper with the cartoon. And it wasn't even a Malaysian, it was someone outside. It was a syndicated  photograph. But because they used that photograph the newspapers closed down and many journalists lost their jobs.

JAMIE YORK:

And if all else fails, there's the Internal Security Act or ISA.

ZAHAROM NAIN:

Which allows the government of the day to arrest and detain without trial anybody that they want, indefinitely. That fear is very real among a lot of journalists who are opposed to the policies and the ways of the state.

JAMIE YORK:

"The government of the day," as Nain calls it, is composed almost exclusively of members of the Malay majority, and it's been in power since Malaysia achieved independence in 1957. It is, to put it mildly, interested in keeping it that way.

But a funny thing happened on the way to total government censorship. In 1997, Malaysia's then Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad saw the potential for something called the internet, to take Malaysia from an agricultural economy to one where fledgling online companies could set up shop. All they needed was a super corridor to the internet and an environment conducive to invention and experimentation. Zaharom Nain.

ZAHAROM NAIN:

You didn't need to go through the high technology phase. You could just leap into the whole cyber era.

JAMIE YORK:

But only if Malaysia could attract creative entrepreneurs. And you know how they are.

ZAHAROM NAIN:

Creative people can be a bit funny, yeah? They need certain freedoms, and if they don't have those freedoms they're gonna be running off to other countries, which is why he designed the Bill of Guarantees, that there would be no censorship of the internet.

JAMIE YORK:

So Prime Minister Mahathir blithely punched a huge hole in the information dam Malaysia had so carefully constructed. Maybe he thought that the internet penetration was so low in Malaysia that no one but the corporate sector would ever use it. Maybe he figured economic development trumped the risks of uncensored news.

In any case, Steven Gan was a frustrated print reporter who saw that opening, and walked right through it.

[SOUND OF MALE VOICES]

STEVEN GAN:

That's where the loophole was for us. We can just call ourself content provider, sell our website and off we go. We decided that perhaps it'd be good if you have a website that provided a credible source of information to everybody, that it is run by professional journalists, that the stories are checked and doubled checked. They meet that professional standard.

JAMIE YORK:

Gan and a cofounder called their site Malaysiakini or “Malaysia today,” and they set  about reporting all the things they'd never been able to cover.

STEVEN GAN:

Independence of the judiciary. We've been reporting about police abuses, brutality - that's in custody, anything that's critical, government - government policy on human rights. We saw our readership grew from say  500 to about 10,000 within weeks, and then went up as high as 300,000.

JAMIE YORK:

Somehow, and everyone has a theory, the government underestimated the internet until it was too late to rein it back in. Nain says it's a bit like - firefighting.

ZAHAROM NAIN:

They're so far behind that, you know, the fire's already spread. They are trying to catch up but it's kinda difficult to do that. [LAUGHING] So I think they just screwed it up.

JAMIE YORK:

In the last 12 years, the internet has gradually reached 70 percent of Malaysians. Online news sites have proliferated, and there's this:

[SOUND OF PROTESTORS]

FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:

They were told not to come but they came anyway, and confrontations between pro-reform demonstrators and police turned violent on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, precisely what the government said it wanted to avoid by banning the demonstrations, in the first place.

JAMIE YORK:

Public engagement has coalesced into larger and louder public protests. This summer approximately 50,000 people turned out in the streets of Malaysia's biggest city, Kuala Lumpur, calling for free and fair elections, or Bersih, for Clean.

Mainstream media invade against the march but  tens of thousands of people protested anyway.

And Steven Gan believes his site, Malaysiakini, actually played a significant part.

STEVEN GAN:

On that day alone, we had five million hits.

JAMIE YORK:

In 2008's national election, the ruling party lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority, despite complete control over the election process and all of the traditional media. It was unprecedented. Obviously, change was inevitable.

But, Malaysia's online media was suffering the same problem as nearly every media outlet the world over - no money. Does democracy in Malaysia rise and fall based on a viable business model? Steven Gan.

STEVEN GAN:

Making political impact wasn't our biggest worry, though, of course, in the beginning we worried about that. [LAUGHS] Trying to make sure that we make enough money to keep the operation going, that's our major worry.

JAMIE YORK:

Malaysiakini has had to erect a paywall, an extremely difficult choice to make when you're the shining example of freedom of information.

And then there's the thornier question of whether information alone is ever a catalyst for change. Nain is skeptical of what he calls technological determinism.

ZAHAROM NAIN:

In the sixties, for example, it was believed that television would help develop the developing countries, right? And it did it in many ways. This - this whole notion that liberation depends on technological form to me is problematic.

JAMIE YORK:

Despite Malaysiakini's success, Gan also remains circumspect.

STEVEN GAN:

I always argue that if Malaysia is to change they will require three main ingredients. One will be independent media, two will be a strong opposition and three will be a vibrant civil society.

JAMIE YORK:

In just the last two years, since the ruling party lost its total lock on power, the government has been using the mainstream media to inflame old ethnic and religious divides.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

Malay versus the Chinese, everyone versus the Malay, etc., the old colonial strategy of divide and rule. Gan takes some bitter satisfaction in that, both in that the government is back on its heels and that its critics can comment on it, in a space the government inadvertently created online. For On the Media, I'm Jamie York.

BOB GARFIELD:

Jamie's story was reported from Malaysia on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.