Net paper poses new challenge to Malaysia’s press controls


When reporters from the Internet newspaper returned to their suburban office, they found a pack of Malaysian news crews waiting on their doorstep.

“They were there downstairs when some of our reporters came back from lunch,” said Steven Gan, editor of the award-winning site. “One of them told our reporters that Home Ministry officials were about to come into our office, and they were there to cover the story.”

The authorities never arrived, but the recent incident points up the rising tension between Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s administration and news outlets it considers biased. Officials have harshly criticized Malaysiakini’s coverage, but it poses a new — and new-age — problem for Malaysia’s government since as an Internet site it’s escaped state press controls.

The domestic media in Malaysia has been controlled since the British colonial era by sedition and licensing laws that can remove publishing or broadcasting rights at the stroke of the home minister’s pen.

As for the foreign press, Mahathir has tried to undercut its coverage by accusing some publications of being anti-Asian, inaccurate and in the pay of vested interests that want to keep Malaysia under the West’s economic thumb.

Late last month, when Hong Kong-based Asiaweek profiled Mahathir in a cover story, the prime minister responded by charging its editors were trying to make him look tired and foolish. Asiaweek denied any bias.

The government also has formed an alliance of the powerful home and foreign ministries to counter what it calls error-ridden foreign reporting.

The hostility between the press and government has sharpened since Mahathir fired his popular deputy Anwar Ibrahim in 1998, triggering a deep political crisis. Anwar’s later conviction for sodomy and corruption — charges he calls politically motivated — sparked an outcry.

The Far Eastern Economic Review, another Hong Kong-based weekly, gave the government ammunition against Malaysiakini when it reported that U.S. financier George Soros’ Open Society Foundation funneled money to the site through a free press advocacy group, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance.

For Malaysian officials, no source of funding could have been more suspect. When the Asia financial crisis struck in 1997, Mahathir singled out Soros among currency traders he blamed for the troubles, calling him a “moron” with a “Jewish agenda” aimed against Muslim-majority Malaysia.

The alliance has acknowledged receiving a grant from the Soros foundation for some projects, but denies any of the money went to Malaysiakini. Still, that didn’t stop government criticism.

“We know what Malaysiakini is worth and have to expose it,” Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar told reporters recently. “Otherwise, it is as if it is a voice championing freedom of expression.”

Syed accused Malaysiakini of being unethical, hypocritical and self-serving, and suggested its editors wanted to create “chaos in the name of freedom.”

Still, the government could not move strongly against Malaysiakini since it is exempt from media licensing laws as an Internet site. Moreover, Mahathir has promised prospective high technology investors that he will not censor Malaysian content on the Internet.

These factors give Malaysiakini unprecedented freedom to provide hard hitting coverage to more than 100,000 visitors a day. The site won the International Press Institute’s 2001 Freedom Award.

The government tried to subdue Malaysiakini by announcing its reporters would be barred from official news events. But editor Gan said that few reporters were turned away and that the government appeared to be struggling to find a strategy.

“At the moment, it’s a sustained attack on our credibility,” Gan said in an interview.

“The government is itching for censorship, but because of their (Internet noninterference) pledge they are finding it difficult,” he said. “They won’t try to raid us or arrest us or shut us down. It would be too difficult for them to explain.”