The press has become too free for the government of Malaysia

Jahabar Sadiq
editor, the Malaysian Insider
Wednesday 16 March 2016

The threat of being accused of sedition and possible jail time has succeeded: people are shutting up and our independent news site has shut down

The news portal The Malaysian Insider went offline on the first minute of 15 March 2016 – the Ides of March. With that, 59 staffers, including me, lost our jobs. And Malaysia lost another source of independent news.

The closure was ostensibly due to an inability to secure a deal with potential suitors and to stem losses that rose to RM10m (US$2.4m) in the 20 months it was held by the Edge Media Group

But it came nearly three weeks after the internet regulator – the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) – issued a block order against us over a report that claimed the local anti-graft agency had sufficient evidence of a criminal charge against the prime minister Najib Razak, although the country’s attorney-general had cleared him of wrongdoing.

The anti-graft investigations began last July after the Wall Street Journal revealed that nearly US$700m had been found in the prime minister’s bank accounts.

First there was a denouncement of that report, but the source of the money was never clear: was it a personal donation or from any government? Suffice to say it remains a mystery today, despite investigations.

The online media covered all aspects of the scandal while the regulated print and broadcast media dutifully reported the government’s side. The straw that broke the camel’s back was our report quoting an unidentified member of an independent panel within the anti-graft agency alleging there was enough proof for a charge.

We were blocked the day our report came out: 25 February, which also happened to be the Malaysian Insider’s eighth birthday. The reasons for our block have never been officially communicated to us, beyond a minister saying we were confusing the people.

The block pushed us off the edge. As it is, we were not making enough money. But the block ensured we could not make any money, as all advertisers pulled out except one.

Traffic slid but not as much as revenue and it was inevitable that we would have to be sold or shut down. As the company had rejected all offers, it decided to close us down immediately and take the servers offline the day the decision was made.

Our closure immediately puts a spotlight to press freedom in Malaysia. It has become freer over the years, thanks to the internet, as print and broadcast remain regulated. The fact is, more Malaysians are abandoning print and broadcast media and instead resorting to news portals such as the Malaysian Insider for their fix of daily news.

Our content became our readers’ discontent. And their discontent became our content – to the dismay of the government that prided itself as moderate and transformational. Several pro-government news portals popped up and the marketplace of ideas became lively.

But the results of the last two elections and the growing criticism over the 1MDB scandal and mysterious origin of the donation in the prime minister’s bank accounts pushed more people to online news portals and the foreign media.

We were becoming too free, as the government side of the news became the object of derision and ridicule. Ministers and the police warned against distributing news or cartoons that mocked the issue, saying it was seditious and unverified news.

Press freedom remains, but the threat of being accused of sedition and possible jail time has imprisoned us within our minds as Malaysians. People are shutting up and we have shut down.

But some independent media remains despite the Malaysian Insider’s closure, soldiering on in an environment that is both economically and politically hostile to anything except the official narrative.

The MCMC has said that 52 websites have been blocked thus far this year, and more could suffer our fate as long as they do not conform to the official narrative. As it is, there is only one pay-site in Malaysia as Malaysians are loth or do not have the disposable income to pay for their news, as seen by sliding newspaper sales.

When that happens, we will go back to the days before the internet – a one-way flow of information dictated by party insiders and government mandarins; and press freedom, freedom of expression, will remain only in name.

Perhaps, some say, there is social media, but even that is under threat of regulation. And it is true, most of the chatter in social media is gossip and speculation – subject to influence from any political party from the government or opposition bench.

Professional and good journalism is the only way to go for people to know what is going on in Malaysia. They have to invest in it to get informed so they can make informed decisions.

But that type of journalism is dying in Malaysia and we have just added to the body count. The saddest day is when none of us are left in Malaysia and we have to read the independent media’s obituary on a foreign news site.

Jahabar Sadiq was the editor of the Malaysian Insider

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