Alternative media springs up to challenge
covering burma and southeast asia
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Alternative media springs up to challenge


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


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“Previously, the opposition did not have alternative means to communicate but now they have Harakah and the Internet.” Unlike the government, which has been slow to adapt to cyberspace, opposition parties and non-governmental organisations have exploited the potential of the Internet and are successfully reaching out to a huge cross-section of middle-class Malaysians. Created by computer-savvy webmasters, a string of snazzily designed web-sites support-ing reformasi and Anwar have each received millions of ‘hits’—the number of times viewers access a particular ‘page’. Thousands of Malaysian have latched on to Internet mailing lists (such as Sangkancil and ADIL-Net) and newsgroups (such as soc.culture.malaysia), exchanging news and views, often extremely critical of the government. For them, cyber space is a refreshing alternative compared with the staid pro-government press. Today there are about a million Internet users in the country, many of whom have become politically aware and now shun the mainstream media. But the limitations are obvious as the Internet’s audience is mainly the urban, middle-class crowd, not the majority of rural Malays, whose votes will be crucial. Still, the Internet does reach many Chinese Malaysians, whom Mahathir is actively wooing now that the Malays are divided over his handling of the Anwar saga. The rot in the traditional media set in after a major crackdown against dissent in 1987, which saw over 100 critics detained without trial and three vocal newspapers having their licences suspended. The temporary closure of the three newspapers ended a brief period in the 1980s, when segments of the press in Malaysia were beginning to assert their independence. The credibility of the media nose-dived further with the biased pro-government reporting of the Anwar saga. As if the fear of a crackdown is not enough, editors today have to contend with a slew of other laws that curb independent investigative journalism. Earlier this year, about 600 journalists submitted a petition to the Malaysian government calling for a repeal of the various laws limiting press freedom and to allow the press to function independently. The Official Secrets Act can turn make even the most innocent government report into a state secret and out of reach of an inquiring journalist. The Printing Presses and Publications Act prohibits the publication of ‘false news’ and requires publishers to apply for a new publishing permit every year. In practice, this requirement makes many editors afraid of offending the authorities or of carrying articles that it cannot verify absolutely. Then there is the much-feared draconian Internal Security Act, which allows indefinite detention without trial—a catch-all law that hangs like the proverbial sword of Damocles over any critic of the established order. Faced with such laws, newspaper editors have not surprisingly developed self-censorship into something of a fine art often setting self-imposed limited parameters beyond which they would not tread for fear of rocking the boat. Often, these editors take their cue from government officials. Thus, there is no questioning in the media today about the country’s expensive ‘mega’ projects and the Prime Minister’s new multi-million palatial residence. Alarmist terms such as ‘smog’ and ‘bail-outs’ are deemed too sensitive and substituted with the milder ‘haze’ and ‘corporate restructuring’. And of course, the words ‘cronyism’ and ‘nepotism’ are a big No-No. No questions are asked either about corruption involving senior government officials, extravagant public spending and the shortage of affordable housing. “The mainstream media become terribly investigative in their reporting when it comes to the opposition,” observes Mustafa, “but when it comes to the ruling coalition they are just full of praise.” It was Mustafa who coined the term ‘cue journalism’ to describe the phenomenon of editors waiting for the cue from government officials before deciding what slant to take or which news stories to push. If discerning Malaysian readers are put off by the media propaganda here, they can expect worse as the election draws nearer. Television and radio are transformed into the official propaganda organs of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. This time around, facing a stiff challenge from a united opposition front, the Barisan is unlikely to allow the opposition even the token air-time it used to give them over radio. The pro-government television, radio stations and newspapers employ a host of tactics to win votes for the Barisan coalition in the run-up to the elections: stirring up communal sentiments, warning of instability should the opposition do well; and trying to create rifts among the opposition parties. There’s absolutely no room for opposition party views in the mainstream media, says activist Lourdes. “Its actually a highly ridiculous situation.


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