How press censorship works

Although Malaysia is a small country (about 26.6 million people, or less than 10 percent the population of the U.S.), its press and broadcast policies are worthy of study. Take the recent government edict issued to a dozen mainstream newspapers and five television stations telling them to ignore any and all online information that might be considered anti-government. (More about the Malaysian issue at Malaysia Today: Bloggers controversy keeps journalists busy, March 23. More also at Jeff Ooi’s blog, March 21.)

I have met some journalism students (and even some mature editors) who think this way: How can you decide which online sources are telling the truth? Well, it can be hard to be sure. So these cautious folks decide they just won’t consult any online-only sources. Ha, that solves the problem, doesn’t it?

A journalist’s job is to find sources and verify them. That means checking and cross-checking. You can do that with online sources — if you’re not a lazy slug.

Sometimes you will hear people calling for stronger oversight of the news media in the U.S. On this subject, we can learn from a country like Malaysia. What does “stronger oversight” amount to?

The biggest muzzle on the press is a license to publish. They have these in Malaysia. You cannot print a newspaper of any kind unless the national government has given you a license to do so.

The license is like a sword hanging over your newspaper’s neck — and that neck is permanently stretched out on the chopping block. Every editor in Malaysia knows this. How do I know? I lived there for eight months and interviewed several of them, both formally and informally. Not one of them agreed to speak on the record.

Why journalists act like chickens

The first threat is personal. Say a government official complains about a story in your newspaper. Maybe it’s a matter of so-called national security, or maybe it’s just about the incredibly expensive mansion the official built for his second wife. If you are the editor who permitted that story to be published, you probably won’t be hauled off and shot (Malaysia isn’t that kind of country). But you could lose your job. And even more subtly, you might just not get that plum promotion you had been guaranteed.

The most interesting thing I was told: If you have children who are not yet of college age, what you’re afraid of is that they will not receive a place at one of the better pubic universities. The national government determines all placements in all public universities in Malaysia. Journalists actually believe the government will send their kids to an inferior school in the hinterlands if they, the journalists, make someone mad by publishing something undesirable.

That one really amazed me.

The second threat is worse: The government can take away your newspaper’s license, and there’s no way to appeal the decision. Your paper must shut down the presses, apply for a new license, and just wait, wait, wait until they think they have punished you enough. Everybody loses his or her job.

What happens when a government is immune from criticism? I mean, your editor is too scared to let you follow up on a story about a legislator’s suspiciously huge income from unknown sources — let alone anything more pervasive or dangerous to the idea of fair government or equality under the law. Malaysia does call itself a democracy, and it holds free and fair elections, and the legislature meets and discusses policy and passes laws. On the surface, the country appears to function like a democratic republic — just like the U.S. or Britain or any other “modern democracy.”

No democracy without a free press

Living in Malaysia, I learned how much of a difference a free press can make. Sure, the U.S. news media have a long, long list of failings. But at least when they do decide to fulfill their watchdog role, the government won’t swoop in and shut down the whole newspaper.

Malaysian officials will be very quick to tell you that you can, and will, read negative news about the government in Malaysian newspapers. That is true. But if you live there for a few months, you’ll start to get the big picture. Malaysians like to read two or three newspapers a day to try to figure out what’s really going on. Part of the way they figure it out — they call it “reading between the lines” — is to compare how the same story is handled in different papers, especially comparing the English-language papers with the vernacular (Malay or Chinese) papers. You’ll sometimes see a very different emphasis in each version, and that lets you know which political faction is pushing the story forward. So the negative news is spun by some power within the government, just as much as the positive news.

Now, back to that edict about ignoring online sources.

In a country such as Malaysia, the only freedom of speech to be found in any mass medium is online (there is also an underground network of SMS — because everyone sends text messages all day long, even grandmothers and small children).

Because the government has pledged not to censor or control the Internet — in the interests of attracting Western business and not seeming to be too backward or paternalistic — what is the best way to combat the truths found only on blogs and other online sites?

  1. Try to convince everyone that the Internet is full of lies.
  2. Try to convince people that there is no way to separate truth from fiction online.
  3. Make all bloggers out to be crazy people, unreliable, and certainly never experts.
  4. Forbid all journalists to use information found online.
  5. Repeat the age-old assurances that the government itself will tell the people everything they need to know.

Well. I think we can all learn from the Malaysian example.

Is anyone you know convinced that we cannot find reliable sources online?

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3 Comments on “How press censorship works

  1. Dear Mindy,
    I’m so intrigued by this post and your blog. At which university do you teach? Where in Malaysia did you spend your eight months? Why Malaysia?

    I’m a Malaysian journalism student who will be graduating from San Francisco State this semester, and interning as a multimedia producer at The Virginian-Pilot in the summer and The Miami Herald in the fall.

    I’m also the director and co-founder of theCICAK, a peer-reviewed Malaysian political and pop culture publication. It’s also a social networking site for the youth who want a better, more democratic country. Most of our writers are high school and college students.

    My friends and I created theCICAK because we were pissed off at how our generation was being covered by mainstream media in Malaysia. Unfortunately, we only publish commentary as opposed to news pieces, as we do not have the resources to train everyone in news writing and reporting.

    Can we republish this post on our site? I think many of our readers would be very interested in this article. I will link it back to

    My e-mail address is:
    pohsiteng at gmail dot com

    Hope to hear from you soon.

    Poh Si

    Poh Si Teng

  2. Hi, Poh Si. Thanks for posting a comment. You can republish this post for non-commercial use under the terms of the Creative Commons License as long as you link back to the original post.

    I chose Malaysia because I think it is one of the most interesting countries in the world. Its racial rojak gives it both vitality and tension. I lived in Shah Alam and taught at UiTM.

    I miss Malaysia so much — it is almost two years since I left.

    Your generation has to find a way to use the strengths of the three races in your country — you know we have a saying: “United, we stand. Divided, we fall.” I am afraid it is up to you to change the system, as it is always left to each new generation.

  3. Hi Mindy,

    I’m the co-founder and publisher of an online arts magazine, We’re entering out 6th year now, and our primary focus is on arts and culture withing a broader socio/political framework. We’ve covered a number of censorship in the arts (and media) related articles and I thought you might be interested in articles on the temporary closure of the Sunday Mail, as well as one on the ongoing bloggers case on the site.

    Kathy Rowland

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