Alternative media springs up to challenge
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Alternative media springs up to challenge

By The Irrawaddy JULY, 1999 - VOLUME 7 NO.6

Media hegemony in Malaysia Anil Noel Netto on alternative media and the strength of the Internet in Malaysia. Tan Kok Hin, a retired salesman and Buddhist, pores over the pages of Harakah, the newspaper of the opposition Islamic Party, PAS. “We can get all the news here which we can’t get from the other local media,” he says, as he flips through the latest issue of Harakah. “We get information about the wrongdoing of the ruling coalition.” For many Malaysians like Tan, the Malay-English bilingual newspaper, published twice weekly, is a welcome alternative to the heavy propaganda dished out by Malaysia’s mainstream media. Harakah’s readership used to be confined to a segment of the country’s Muslims. But the sacking, arrest and brutal assault of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim last September shocked many Malaysians and sparked Malaysia’s reformasi movement, which is seeking broad-based political and social reforms. Readers of mainstream newspapers quickly realized that they were not getting the whole picture of the disturbing events in the country from the official media. So they have turned in droves to the Internet, which features foreign and alternative media reports and a host of critical web-sites, and to Harakah, until then a party organ with little appeal to those outside the party. Within weeks of Anwar’s ouster, Harakah’s circulation shot up from 70,000 to hit a peak of 300,000 before stabilising at about 250,000. On the face of it, it looks like press freedom is flourishing in Malaysia. “A lot of truth is reported in the alternative media,” says social activist Jubal Lourdes. “The thing is the circulation is controlled.” Many new Harakah readers like Tan are knowingly or unwittingly flouting an official regulation restricting the sale of political party organs to party members only. After a couple of stern warnings from the authorities, Harakah started carrying a ‘For Members Only’ notice featured prominently in bold letters, just below its mast-head on the front page. But that hasn’t stopped Harakah’s independent network of news-vendors from selling the paper on the quiet to non-PAS members like Tan. “Harakah is taking a risk to distribute to non-members when it should be their right,” says media analyst Mustafa Anuar. Not so fortunate was the opposition Democratic Action Party, whose newsletter The Rocket disappeared from news-stands when the ‘party members only’ ruling was first introduced. Welcome to the reality of the Malaysian media. Despite tight controls on the mainstream media, several lively alternative media have sprung up catering to a more politically aware readership. In the process, it has also has loosened the strong grip that mainstream newspapers once had over the population. Apart from Harakah, other alternative publications — a new Malay language newspaper, Eksklusif, and a Malay political magazines, Detik—have also plunged into the fray. This new vibrant alternative press has eaten into the circulation of the traditional mainstream papers such as Berita Harian and Utusan Malaysia, which are controlled either by component parties of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition or by ‘friendly’ firms aligned to the coalition. Malaysian officials are clearly worried about the impact of the alternative media as a general election looms. Though the election is only due in mid-2000, many expect Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, in power for 18 years, to capitalize on a minor economic rebound and call for snap elections. Faced with the challenge from the new press and the Internet, the government is, not surprisingly, keeping the electronic media - television and radio - on a tight leash. On July 2, Information Minister Khalil Yaacob announced that the opposition would not be allowed to use state-run RTM to promote their agenda, a move critics denounced as undemocratic. Though private television stations such as TV3 and NTV7 could decide whether to give space to opposition views, they are unlikely to do so for fear of upsetting the government, which approves their broadcasting licence. For years, the traditional media held a monopoly over the dissemination of news. Despite being public property, state-run Radio Television Malaysia, which operates two television networks and a slew of radio stations, is often manipulated to serve the interests of the ruling party. “They are not fair to all parties, especially in the run up to the elections,” says media analyst Mustafa Anuar, adding that this is not something new. “But maybe this time it is more acute because the government’s credibility is under close scrutiny by the Malay community,” which makes up about half the population. This time around also, there is a real difference, observes Mustafa.

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