Notes / Malaysian Press

Compiled by Mindy McAdams

Just some thoughts about what I'm reading.

Explaining development journalism

Former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir criticized the Australian press for running negative stories about Malaysia. Malaysian journalists (some, many, most?) accept or embrace the role of supporting their government, not criticizing it. Must the press take an adversarial role? The country's race riots (May 13, 1969) were clearly a pivotal moment for a former colony that gained independence (merdeka) from Britain in 1957. The goal of promoting racial harmony apparently seemed essential. National laws forbid the mass media to stir up animosity among the races. Four "sensitive issues" are protected from criticism: the language policy, special status for bumiputeras, citizenship policy affecting non-bumiputeras, and position of the sultans. Five Principles of Nationhood (Rukunegara) were adopted; Loo (2000) says these principles guide Malaysian journalists in their self-censorship and are acknowledged in the Canons of Journalism.

The "last media clampdown" was in 1987, but journalists are cautious because they could be sued, fired, or arrested if they break the laws. News tends to focus on business and social stories (safe topics). Bernama has exclusive rights to receive wire reports from foreign news agencies, until 2007. Journalists took more risks in the 1960s and 1970s. The idea of news among Malaysian journalists is the same as in the West; only the idea of the journalist's role is different. A "unique Malaysian approach to reporting and writing in-between the lines" entails a style of holding back just enough and relying on "the readers' ability to read beyond the text" (Loo, 2000). Press cards are required of all journalists in Malaysia; they must be renewed each year, and the police issue them. These were instituted in 1993.

Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister, sometimes criticized the press restrictions. Records of state-owned companies are shielded by the Official Secrets Act. Foreign publications have been (temporarily) banned (Loo, 2000). In the rural areas, telephone lines, TV ownership, etc., show a gap compared with urban centers. Loo concludes that within the cultural context of a growing economy and a multicultural, multiethnic population, Malaysian journalists are not altogether passive or powerless, but they continually renegotiate a tenable position in relationship to the government.

The Internet as a tool for political action

In spite of Prime Minister Mahathir's 1996 pledge that there would be no censorship of the Internet in Malaysia, Malaysians did not flock to the Web until after the arrest and imprisonment of Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in 1998. More than 50 pro-Anwar sites came online in 1998 and 1999 (Abbott, 2001). Subsequent attempts by the government to filter or otherwise interfere with sites or ISPs’ operations have come to nothing. When attempts to exert control have been made, they have been rescinded.

"While acknowledging publicly his concerns about the availability of pornographic material and dissident voices on the net, Prime Minister Mahathir was determined to give Malaysia a competitive advantage over its neighbour Singapore, where stringent controls had been imposed on ISPs" (Abbott, 2001). There was also the incentive of attracting foreign technology companies to the Multimedia Super Corridor project.

Abbott (2001) summarizes the Chinese laws controlling the Internet in the late 1990s and also the means used to circumvent them. The government's ability to monitor users' online behavior acts as an effective deterrent, he suggests, even though it's impossible to block all unwanted information from entering (or leaving) Chinese Web space.

Internet adoption issues for Southeast Asia and China include literacy rates, the preponderance of English language use online, access to the latest computers and telecom network technologies, and access costs (high in relationship to per capita income). As long as only a small percentage of a population can have access, the Internet cannot play a significant part in political change (Abbott, 2001).