Online Journalism in Malaysia

In a 1997, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad pledged a no-censorship policy for the Internet when he was courting overseas investment for high-tech industries. In 1998, the parliament instituted the ‘non-censorship’ assurance through the Communication and Multimedia Act 1998. It has provided a space for the public to voice their participation in the process of democracy, using freedom of expression and the freedom to participate in political debates (Ghazali, 2008).

Socio Political Criticism: Online Journalism as ‘the voice of the voiceless’

The implementation of the CMA has brought to a new atmosphere in Malaysian journalism whereby the term ‘online journalism’ existed. The emergence of ‘blogsphere’ has given a new platform for the public debates on the socio-political scene in Malaysia.

Online journalism offers possibilities of vertical and horizontal flows, an open space to the audience and truthfulness could be challenged directly in real time with less gatekeeping and at the same time projecting the traits as an alternative medium. This may explain why the numbers of online news audience are increasing at a very fast rate (Ghazali, 2008).

This phenomenon can be seen in previous Malaysia 13th General Election which saw an increase of 2.9 million newly registered voters whom a substantial percentage are believed to be the youths.

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BN’s attempts to win them over with a range of million-ringgit youth events and the BR1M payouts must have failed as many of them evidently voted for change (Kee, 2013). The young represented a huge percentage of the electorate; most of them are the first-time voters. This could be the impact of the online journalism which allows them an open space for socio-political criticism.

Despite of much electoral campaign BN has launched through the mainstream media, BN still abusing its own power in controlling the mainstream media by making a full use of the media to portrays the positive sides of themselves yet to also portrays the negative sides of the opposition. Much of the vox-pop from television news is the ‘scripted’ views from the public. Not much of the public criticism towards government policies were aired on the mainstream TV station.

This have restricted the public to give out their own opinion and stand on any issue while the ruling party keep claiming that they are representing the majority voices of the public. As an alternatives, public especially the young, choose to express their opinion in the more open space, which is certainly the internet. 

Through the social network also, public can interact each other and convey their dissatisfaction to the political figures. Representatives can utilize the social network to interact directly with the public and bring the issue to the State Assembly. This has become the main factor that the opposition members utilized the social network as the campaign tools during the GE13 as boost the voting from the youths.

Another example ‘voice of the voiceless’ was when Datuk Hasan Malek, minister of Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism gave a statement that the ministry have not received or hear any complain about the consumer goods price hikes from the public. 

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The statement has raised public anger in social networking sites when the public are actually feeling burdened by the price hikes. The complains from the public were not being publicized in the mainstream media instead the media play it rolls of supporting the course of the government by making a headlines ‘price hikes does not affect the public’. But when it turn to the internet, the reality shows otherwise.

Example of a random survey carried out through social network, and Astro Awani on the cost of living.

Malaysiakini; Malaysia’s Online Journalism Pioneer

Malaysiakini was launched in November 1999. Steven Gan and Premesh Chandran, two young journalists who believed that political control had corrupted the values of good journalism in the mainstream media, their plan was to bring independent news, investigative reporting, and in-depth analysis to the Internet (Nain 2002).

Steven Gan during World Bloggers and Social Media Awards 2014 in Kuala Lumpur

It is blog that are willing to report on political news with a high standards of journalism that it upholds that would not otherwise be accessible from the mainstream media. Nowadays, Malaysiakini can be considered as an online newspaper that looks like a conventional newspapers because it has become on the main source of news for the citizens.

Malaysiakini posts about fifteen news stories a day (up from eight to ten prior to the election), plus commentary, letters, and reader comments (click here) called “Vox Populi.” It offers sections in Chinese, Malaysian, and Tamil, which contain translations of major English-language stories plus a few more specialized stories of particular interest to the Chinese, Malay, and Indian communities. For most of 2007, Malaysiakini had about five thousand paid subscribers and was accessed by one hundred thousand different computers each day (Steele, 2009).

In Malaysia, all publications are licensed, and journalists are constraints by the restrictions of an Internal Security Act, a Sedition Act, and an Official Secrets Act which makes the freedom of the press is limited. 

Malaysiakini covers both sides’ stories, providing documentary evidence, and giving voice to the voiceless—to legitimize alternative views of events, thus challenging the authoritarianism of the ruling coalition. In creating a space where citizens are free to express their opinions, Malaysiakini deliberately promotes a blueprint for democratic civic discourse in Malaysia (Steele, 2009)

Apart from that, Malaysaikini also offers both testimony and eye-witness accounts through the Vox Populi (also known as Vox Pop) pages, can be accessed throug which are brief responses to news stories. It invites comment from the public on an issue by asking readers to share their views.

“The media landscape in Malaysia is highly politicized. Malaysians have not come across a truly independent media until Malaysiakini came into the picture. That is why the government has tried time and again to dismiss us as an opposition voice. Over the years, we have proven otherwise. That’s something which the government does not know how to deal with,” Steven Gan.

In short, online journalism does allow more socio-political critism because of the open and free space it offers to the internet users. Though online content are not restricted to any regulations, it is still 'loosely' control through few legislation such as CMA and Evidence Act 114A. It is depend on the internet users to utilised the internet as their source of information and public debate space. Somehow the internet allows more voices to be voiced out. Somehow online journalism can still be considered as the 'fourth estate' and plays a  'watchdog' role of journalism.

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