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A Malaysian newspaper that exists only in cyberspace has inspired a torrent of online debate since its launch a decade ago, in a phenomenon that has shaken up the nation’s media and political scene.
The pioneering website Malaysiakini and the thriving political blogosphere it helped spawn have been key to the rise of the opposition which after decades of obscurity now has a real chance of gaining power.
“The Malaysian blogosphere has really exploded and pushed the boundaries of press freedom in Malaysia in unprecedented ways,” said Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
“Without question Malaysiakini was on the vanguard of the Malaysian online news phenomenon and provided a brave, bold example that this whole generation of online bloggers and news providers has been able to draw on,” he said.
Malaysiakini — “Malaysia Now” — stumbled into a void waiting to be filled in a country where the government-friendly media have close ties to political parties, and where new publishing licences are virtually unheard of.
It was the vanguard for a flowering of news and views from a wide range of commentators, who use the relative freedom of the Internet to broach once-taboo topics such as opposition politics, race and religion.
It’s all a long way from 1999 when founders Steven Gan and Pramesh Chandran launched Malaysiakini online, at a time when many people were only just signing up for email accounts and learning how to navigate the Internet.
“The Internet was our last resort. I knew we wouldn’t reach a lot of people but we had no choice as we didn’t get a publishing licence,” Gan said in an interview at his headquarters in Kuala Lumpur’s lively Bangsar district.
“We thought we’d run it like any other media organization as that was where our experience was, and make it different from other political websites by being credible and professional.”
The path has not been all smooth. Malaysiakini’s offices were raided in 2003, staff were banned from official events until recently, and the mostly young employees have made some errors and missteps.
But the editorial team has expanded from four to 25, daily hits have peaked at 500,000 during major events when the subscription-only site is thrown open to the public, and it has been profitable for the past four years.
The Internet-led news phenomenon helped breath life into the opposition just as its figurehead, former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim was returning to the political stage after a spell in jail.
In March 2008 general elections, his opposition alliance seized five states and a third of parliamentary seats, humbling the coalition which has dominated Malaysia for half a century since independence from Britain.
Influence of blogosphere
The political earthquake stunned the government which had vilified bloggers and threatened them with jail. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi admitted his “biggest mistake” had been to ignore cyber-campaigning.
“We thought that the newspapers, the print media and television were important, but young people were looking at SMS and blogs,” he said.
James Chin from the Kuala Lumpur campus of Australia’s Monash University, said Malaysia’s vibrant online scene was the result of a unique set of factors including a muzzled mainstream media and relatively good Internet access.
“Malaysiakini could only have existed in places like Malaysia, Singapore or Burma, simply because the mainstream press have no credibility,” the political analyst said.
The phenomenon has also provided more space for the mainstream media — which largely practices self-censorship — to cover stories that in the past they would have had to ignore, he said.
“The traditional press can justify covering a story because they can argue that it’s already in the public domain,” Chin said. “They act as a safety valve for local papers.”
Jeff Ooi, one of the nation’s top bloggers who has now become an opposition parliamentarian, said there were fears that deputy premier Najib Razak, who will replace Abdullah in March, could clamp down on the Internet.
Malaysia made a 1996 pledge not to censor the Internet, but websites and blogs are still subject to strict slander and security laws which critics say can be wielded as political weapons.
Another high-profile blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin, an outspoken critic of the government, was jailed for two months last year under an internal security law that allows for indefinite detention without trial.
But Chin said the Malaysian blogosphere is now so large and diverse, with many pro-government sites also reaching a wide audience, that the genie can never be put back in the bottle.
“It’s unclampable right now. The Internet has gone far beyond the conventional control methodology,” he said.
“Regulators are saying that whatever is illegal offline is illegal online, but there are loopholes that mean bloggers are still having a heyday.”