Malaysian website tests press freedom limits

Popular website’s court victory to start newspaper in country where media is strictly regulated seen as turning point.

Malaysiakini has used the relative freedom of the internet to give Malaysians an alternative point of view

Above the bustle of the car workshops below, Malaysiakini’s journalists are gathering to discuss their editorial plans for the week ahead.

It’s a short but wide-ranging discussion on all things Malaysian: from the prime minister and his golf playing to how to move forward a story about the latest developments in the long-running saga over the murder of Mongolian model Altantuya Shaariibuu.

Altantuya’s 2006 killing had all the traits of a classic whodunit; a photogenic young victim, a gruesome death (she was blown to bits in a jungle clearing) and a hefty dose of political intrigue.

That the murder involved a very powerful individual and bodyguards of two Malaysian prime ministers were not a deterrent for Malaysiakini journalists. At the news room, the editor-in-chief of the website joined the animated conversation over the murder mystery’s coverage.

In a country where traditional media requires a government licence and is controlled either by the government or people connected to it, Malaysiakini has used the relative freedom of the internet to give Malaysians an alternative point of view. 

‘Right to publish’

“US based Freedom House describes Malaysia as ‘partly free’ in terms of Internet Freedom, in press freedom it’s categorised as ‘not free’ and is ranked 144th out of 197 countries.”

In 13 years of its existence, it became the country’s most popular news website, but tried and failed twice to get a licence to start a traditional newspaper. Now a judge, in what’s being seen as a landmark decision, has ruled Malaysiakini should be able to have a licence; a move being lauded as a major step forward in media freedom.

“For the first time, the courts are recognising the right to publish; that owning a newspaper permit is a constitutional right,” said Masjaliza Hamzah, Executive Director of the Centre for Independent Journalism in Kuala Lumpur. “It’s going to be appealed, but in terms of winning a war, the first big battle has been won.”  

Judge Abang Iskandar Abang Hashim described the government’s 2010 decision to reject Malaysiakini’s application as “improper and irrational”, and stressed that the right to freedom of expression, “a fundamental liberty enshrined in the Constitution”, had been affected by the government’s actions. He also ordered the Home Ministry to pay costs.

“The substance was important; that (a newspaper is) not a luxury or a privilege, but a right,” said Gayathry Venkiteswaran, Executive Director of the Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance. “But getting approval for the permit is just one step. That’s the reality of the situation.”

While US based Freedom House describes Malaysia as “partly free” in terms of Internet Freedom, in press freedom it’s categorised as “not free” and is ranked 144th out of 197 countries. There are official “guidelines” for publications, which cover not only books and magazines, but a variety of broadly defined editorial content, including “photographs, writing and reports”. A printing press requires a licence as well, notwithstanding the additional cost of producing and distributing a daily newspaper.

Like many other newspapers across the world, the Malaysian press has been struggling to maintain readers, particularly in English. Most of them, including The Star, the biggest-selling English language paper, and the long struggling New Straits Times are fast developing online, mobile and interactive platforms to counter that decline.

Meanwhile, Malaysiakini’s online rivals say they have no plans for diversifying into “old” media. Jahabar Sadiq is chief executive of the Malaysian Insider, which was set up in 2008. “It was, and is always going to be, a digital-only news portal,” he wrote in an email to Al Jazeera. “Print is on the decline even as fixed and mobile broadband expand in Malaysia. So we will stick with the digital platform.”

‘Test for PM’

Malaysiakini is undaunted. Chief Executive Premesh Chandran insists starting a print publication is a natural evolution for the media group. Malaysiakini is already far more than an online newspaper. It reports in Malay, Chinese and Tamil as well as English, hosts citizens’ blogs and produces television reports.

 Malaysia internet law stirs free speech fears

A business news site will go live next year. “I don’t think print is a loss making proposition,” Chandran told Al Jazeera. “If you’re second, third or fourth obviously it’s tough but there is a big market for independent news. Malaysiakini is a brand and we can leverage that brand to reach out to a wider audience.”

Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has made some attempts at reform as part of an attempt to help Malaysia, as he put it in September 2011, “stand on a par with other democratic systems in the world based on the philosophy of from the people, by the people, for the people”. 

Preventative detention laws and other laws curbing freedom of expression have been repealed – although in some cases replaced with similar legislation. Changes to the Printing, Presses and Publications Act mean newspapers are no longer required to renew their licence, once they have one, every year.

The revisions also mean those whose applications have been rejected have the right to challenge that decision.

“The case will become a test of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s rhetoric for change,” Asia Foundation country representative Anthea Mulakala wrote in a blog post this month. “Malaysians will be watching closely to see if, and when, Malaysiakini’s application is approved.”

With an election due by April 2013, Chandran doesn’t expect the government’s appeal will take place before the polls are called. Malaysiakini’s journalists will still have plenty to keep them occupied.

The next election is likely to be the most closely fought since independence and the site’s 400,000 daily readers will be expecting to be updated every step of the way.  

Source: Al Jazeera