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Steven Gan is a co-founder of Malaysia’s first and only independent media, Malaysiakini.com. Since 1999, Malaysiakini has become one of the top news websites in the country, receiving the Free Media Pioneer 2001 award. As an advocate for free press and democracy, Gan believes that dictators and autocrats don’t give up power easily. Democracy needs a bit of prodding, especially from the civil society. Below is Steven Gan’s Malaysiakini experience. Although the article is about Malaysia, much of the material applies to Singapore as well.
South-east Asia when I was a student activist was very different. Then there were Suharto, Marcos and Suchinda. Now they are all gone.
Indeed, we have seen much changes in the region. Dictators and autocrats are on the way out. Democracy is slowly taking roots.
In the Philippines, the democracy baby is learning to walk, and getting better each time. In Thailand, the democracy baby is still crawling. It tries to take a few tentative steps now and then, but keeps falling. In Indonesia, the democracy baby has just been born. It is wailing and getting all the attention it richly deserves.
In Malaysia, the democracy baby has been conceived. The mother is undergoing birth pangs. And it looks like a difficult birth. Dr Mahathir is recommending a caesarean, but not many trust the doctor. Especially when, he puts the father of the child away for, of all things, sodomy.
In Singapore, the democracy baby has yet been conceived, and Lee Kuan Yew is working overtime to make sure that everyone is taking protection. And if that doesnt work, there is always abortion.
It is clear that democracy does not emerge out of the blue. Dictators and autocrats dont give up power easily. Democracy needs a little bit of prodding, especially from the civil society.
Over the past few years, the internet has been increasingly seen as a weapon which the civil society can wield to promote democracy.
But the reality is very different. The internet alone cannot bring about democracy.
Shanthi Kalathil and Taylor C Boas in a recent study on China and Cuba show how authoritarian regimes can maintain control over the internets political impact and, at the same time, extract technological benefits from it.
Perhaps and I say again, perhaps Malaysias internet experiment could prove to be different.
Full of contradictions
Malaysia is a democracy. We have freedom of speech, but no freedom after speech. There is freedom of movement, but no freedom of assembly. We have a plethora of publications about a dozen or so newspapers in four different languages but no free press.
Clearly, the government had a complete monopoly on information until the emergence of the internet. But while we have finally managed to break the governments monopoly on truth, we are no near breaking its monopoly on power. The only advantage we have over the traditional media in Malaysia is that Malaysiakini needs not apply for a publication licence.
Indeed, we face many other restrictive laws that keep the traditional media in check. The number of laws which directly and indirectly impinge on press freedom in Malaysia is, not five or 10, but 35.
Litany of laws
For example, under the Official Secrets Act (OSA), almost all government documents can be labelled state secrets and thus cannot be released to the public. The OSA effectively inhibits civil servants from giving information, including those strictly not categorised as secret, for fear of retribution or demotion, or worse still, punished with a mandatory jail sentence.
In addition, there is the Internal Security Act, which allows detention without trial. A number of journalists have been arrested under this draconian law and its threat cast an ominous shadow on all journalists.
But the mother of all laws, as far as the journalists are concerned, is the Printing Presses and Publications Act. It provides the government the right to suspend or revoke printing and publishing permits. And its decision is not subject to review, or be challenged in court. The Act also requires the annual applications of all printing and publishing permits, thus keeping the press on a short leash.
In 1987, the licences of three newspapers were revoked under this law in a sweeping crackdown on political dissent. The law also allows the government to fine or jail writers, editors, printers and publishers for spreading “false news.”
More recently, a number of anti-government publications ran foul of the law. Independent weekly Esklusif, pro-reform monthly magazines Detik and Al-Wasilah were banned while the organ of opposition Islamic Party, Harakah, was punished with a reduction in its frequency from eight to two issues a month.
Given such an environment, media organisations in Malaysia are not surprisingly obsessed with self-censorship.
An example is my personal experience when I was part of an investigative team in The Sun, an English-language daily.
In 1995, working with two colleagues, I helped unearth the deaths of 59 detainees mostly Bangladeshis in an illegal immigration detention camp. They died of beri-beri a symptom of malnutrition and typhoid, diseases which are easily preventable.
We wrote that this was a case of criminal neglect on the part of the police who ran the camp. The story was spiked hours before it went to print.
When it appeared that the paper was not going to run the story, the team decided to hand the information over to Tenaganita, an NGO which supports migrant workers.
It wasn’t until Tenaganita exposed the deaths at a press conference and these deaths confirmed by the government that the newspaper had the courage to run the story, but not without four revisions.
That was not the end of the story. The whistle-blower, Tenaganita director Irene Fernandez, was subsequently arrested for spreading “false news” under the Printing Presses and Publications Act a law originally used to muzzle the press.
Those who wrote the story were interrogated by the police for over three days.
Which is why the only democratic space left in Malaysia is cyberspace.
Malaysiakini went live three years ago and even today we are still very much a cowboy outfit. Despite this, we have 100,000 visitors daily which puts us in the same league as major newspapers in the country.
Our success is due to three key reasons:
One, government policy in order to promote the Multimedia Super Corridor, Malaysias own Silicon Valley, the government has pledged not to censor the internet. To its credit, the government has kept very much to its promise.
Two, political conscientisation over the past few years, a growing number of Malaysians have developed a keen interest in, among others, democracy, human rights, good governance and independence of the judiciary.
And three, lost of credibility among the traditional media due to press self-censorship, readers are increasingly driven to the internet in search of alternative sources of news.
There is a fourth reason that there are journalists who are willing to draw a line in the sand and tell the government: “This far, no further.”
The profile of Malaysiakinis readership is telling. Visitors below 18 are almost negligible, 0.02 per cent those in their teens are definitely not our market. Between 18-25, 8 per cent we are not reaching the college students either. Between 26-40, 50 per cent the majority of our readership are working professionals.
But consider this. Above 40, we have 46 per cent. These are readers who are already in top management posts, who feel that they are not getting what they want from the highly censored traditional media. Many go online specifically to visit Malaysiakini. We are indeed introducing a new generation to the internet.
Share of problems
We, too, have our share of problems. Our website is apparently a huge magnet for hackers. We have lost count on the number of times that Malaysiakini was hacked.
Im not going to speculate where these attacks come from, but the government last year vowed to launch “missiles” against errant websites. Suffice to say, protecting Malaysiakini from hackers is a major preoccupation for our small technology team.
Malaysiakini journalists do not have official press tags, which are issued by the government to all working journalists. Our application for these passes was rejected two years ago. Consequently, we are banned from government functions, and more recently, the Parliament. However, the ban is not strictly enforced and we will continue to challenge it.
And, of course, we face attacks from the government. Issues were made regarding our sources of finance, pressures have been put on our advertising clients, and we were called “traitors” by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
But we expect worse to come. There has been discussion in governments circles on amending the printing laws to require licensing for news websites such as Malaysiakini.
Still, the internet has helped put press freedom on the front burner. It spurred mainstream journalists to, for the first time in recent years, call for an end to the restrictive printing law.
Exactly four years ago, they handed a petition signed by over 1,000 journalists to the government expressing concern of “accusations that local journalists are merely a part of the government’s propaganda machine and not professionals performing their duties to the best of their ability.”
The petition said: “We further note that this perception, rightly or wrongly, has resulted in more and more people turning to alternative sources of information, namely, the Internet, foreign news reports as well as opposition party publications.”
To replace the printing law, the journalists proposed a press council to self-regulate the media. In response, the government accepts the proposal to set up a press council, but not the demand to repeal the printing law.
This, we strongly object a press council cannot operate in an environment where restrictive press laws remain, and where media organisations are owned by either political parties or government cronies.
Prove Mahathir wrong
At the prestigious Journalism Awards seven years ago, Mahathir told the 700-odd journalists who attended the gala event to behave themselves. He said Malaysians should not be unduly ashamed of laws which curtail their freedom of expression.
“Are we ashamed that there is no freedom of the press in this country?” he asked. “Do we, forever, have to apologise to the rest of the world for our laws. Could it be, perhaps, that we are right and they are wrong?” Later that night, he presented a number of awards to journalists picked by a panel of veteran journalists for their outstanding news reports.
One of the winners was “Shattered Dreams” the report about the deaths of immigrants in the detention camps, a story originally considered unfit for publication.
But despite the irony of the award, Malaysian journalists have yet to prove Mahathir wrong.
The journey Malaysiakini has embarked on three years ago is both perilous and treacherous. There is no guarantee of success.
We face both government and financial pressures. Only time will tell whether we would eventually reach our destination. There is, however, no turning back. And giving up is not an option.
Forest Gump, in the Hollywood movie of the same name, said that “life is like a box of chocolates” you never know what youre going to get. Likewise, press freedom is like toothpaste once it is out, its difficult to put it back in.
Our job as journalists is to squeeze a blob of press freedom out from the tube. Only then will the internet live up to its hype that it can help bring about democracy.
Steven Gan, 40, graduated in political economy in Australia in 1989. He spent four years as a freelance journalist based in Hong Kong and travelled extensively during that time. He covered the Gulf War from Baghdad in 1991.
Gan returned to Malaysia in 1994 and was appointed special issues editor for the newly launched Sun newspaper. He also wrote a weekly column, Thursday With Steven Gan, although he frequently had to battle both the paper’s internal censors and with the government.
A year later, he helped break a story on the deaths of 59 inmates in the Semenyih immigration detention camp. When the editors refused to publish the story, he gave the information to human rights activist Irene Fernandez, who was subsequently charged by the government with spreading “false news,” which is a crime in Malaysia. Her trial, which began in 1996, is still being heard in a Kuala Lumpur court.
In 1996, Gan was arrested during the Asia Pacific Conference on East Timor (Apcet II) when a pro-government mob sought to forcibly stop the meeting. He was adopted by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience. His last column was on the Apcet II fracas, which was spiked by the editor. He resigned from the paper in protest and worked as editorial writer for The Nation newspaper in Bangkok for two years.
Gan is a co-founder of Malaysia’s first and only independent media, Malaysiakini.com. Since it went live in November 1999, Malaysiakini has become one of the top news websites in the country.
Malaysiakini received the Free Media Pioneer 2001 award from the International Press Institute, and Gan is a recipient of the Committee to Protect Journalists International Press Freedom Award 2000.
The online website was ranked 18 on Asiaweeks Power 50 for 2001, and Gan was also selected as one of the 50 most influential individuals in Business Weeks “Stars of Asia.”