The story that is dividing Malaysia’s media

Listening Post | 19 Apr 2016
Al Jazeera

For much of the past year, the biggest news story in Malaysia has been the so-called ‘1MDB’ corruption scandal – a story of millions of dollars of public money allegedly funnelled into the bank accounts of Prime Minister Najib Razak.

The online investigative magazine Sarawak Report broke the story last June and many in the mainstream media, who have links to the government, were slow to follow up.

Only a small number of online outlets, such as Malaysiakini, followed the corruption investigation closely. But the government is keen to keep this story out of the public eye. The Listening Post spoke to Malaysiakini editor Steven Gan about the 1MDB scandal, the limitations of Malaysia’s mainstream media and the growing threat to online freedom of the press.

Steven Gan, editor-in-chief of the Malaysiakini website, speaks about the 1MDB scandal, and the growing threat to online freedom press [Will Yong/ Al Jazeera]

The Listening Post: The corruption scandal swirling around the prime minister has been a huge news story in Malaysia. What is the significance of this story? How much has it dominated the news and what impact is it having?

Steven Gan: It is a major story not just in Malaysia, but around the world. I mean, where do you have a prime minister found to have $700m in his private bank account? So it’s really, really unusual.

For us, it’s a major story, being an online publication. But I think if you compare us or the online media with the mainstream media, the traditional media, the TV stations, radio stations, and newspapers, you don’t see much of that reported.

The Listening Post: We spoke with the editor of the broadsheet daily newspaper Utusan Malaysia to get an understanding of that paper’s approach to this story. How do you assess Utusan Malaysia’s coverage?

Gan: Utusan Malaysia is actually … directly owned by the ruling party UMNO, so they are more or less a mouthpiece of the party.

The editors actually being more or less appointed by party leaders. So whatever they report – and of course whatever they don’t report – largely reflects party positions. For instance, yesterday, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed filed a lawsuit against Prime Minister Najib and that story was not reported today by Utusan. And not just Utusan, but all of the mainstream media.

For us, it’s a major story and I think for everybody else around the world it would be a major story – but not for Utusan.

The Listening Post: There seems to be a clear divide between mainstream media and online outlets in Malaysia. Could you explain this divide to us and what it means for news consumers?

Gan: In Malaysia, for a number of decades, the mainstream media has been either directly or indirectly controlled by the government, and some of them are actually owned by the ruling party.

So it is a way for them to put all the mainstream media on a tight leash, not just through ownership but also through the licensing regime. If you want to launch a newspaper, you need to get a licence from the government and through that, the government is able to apply quite a bit of leverage over you because they can take away your licence.

They could make you illegal, meaning that you have a closed shop. Until recently, the licensing regime was so draconian that the government’s decision to suspend a newspaper could not be challenged in court. So through that, the government can actually keep a lid on a lot of the traditional media. Online media is a bit different because we have a history of no censorship.

That’s partly because of a fight in the 1990s when former Prime Minister Mahathir came up with the idea that Malaysia could be the Asian Silicon Valley. He promised not to censor the internet, so we have that long tradition where there’s no censorship of the internet. But of course you know, lately you see the government trying to impose censorship on the internet media.

The Listening Post: How have foreign media outlets performed on this story? Would it be fair to say they have felt bolder to push the story since they do not suffer the same consequences as local media?

Gan: I think there is definitely a situation where if you are based outside the country you feel a bit safer. And therefore you do not have to worry so much about being arrested, for instance, being harassed or being shut down.

So I think the pressure that we face, they may not have to face so much. Though, of course, if they happen to send journalists here, say for instance what happened to the ABC journalist from Australia who asked questions at an event where Najib was attending. They were arrested and deported. That will be the kind of pressure that the government can put on you as journalist.

The Listening Post: How has the prime minister himself dealt with the waves of negative press he is getting? How has he sought to counter the corruption allegations?

Gan: He’s just maintaining a complete silence. For the past seven, eight months since the first revelation there has not been a single press conference by the prime minister on this matter or on other matters as well.

So there has been no opportunity to ask him to respond to these allegations. There were a number of press conferences but we were not invited. We were banned from attending. The intent is to ensure that no one is able to ask those questions, point blank, to the prime minister. And, of course, when the ABC journalists tried to do that, they got arrested.

The Listening Post: In February this year, the Malaysian Insider website was blocked by the state media regulator. What was it about Malaysian Insider’s coverage that put it on a collision course with the government? What’s next for online journalism in Malaysia?

Gan: That was again related to the investigation by the Anti-Corruption Commission on the money found in the prime minister’s bank account. We do not know exactly what to expect next. Like Malaysian Insider we could be blocked, we could be shut down.

It’s as if we are on a speeding bus with no brakes. And there are obstacles in front of us and we are trying very hard to avoid big ones, we swerve. Small ones we ram through but we have no clue what the government is going to throw at us next. You have a situation where there is really no option but for us to keep moving ahead. And that’s what we’re doing, pressing ahead.

We want to continue to do a good job as journalists, to report news, you know, that matters. But at the end of the day, if the government wants to shut you down they can.

We hope that we can fight back and with the support that we have after 16 years of Malaysiakini being in operation, I think we do have sizeable support out there, and if the Senate tries to shut us down, we hope that we’re able to resist it.

The Listening Post: An amendment to the 1998 Communication and Multi Media Act could, if passed, block online outlets from defaming national leaders. Why do you think this has been proposed now and how it will affect journalism?

Gan: I think definitely the government is on the back foot. They’re trying to do whatever they can to put a lid especially on the independent media. And most of the independent media are actually online. They already have the traditional media very much under control. So now the attempt is to shut out the other media. Had there been no internet, say, for instance, 15, 20 years ago, I don’t think a lot of people would know about the money in the PM’s bank account.

Even if it’s been reported by foreign media. So I think that times have changed in that sense. People are getting access to alternative information, information that has not been reported by the traditional media, by the government-controlled media. And the government is trying very hard to stop it. That would definitely involve shutting down websites or blogs that report or discuss all those issues.

The Listening Post: How significant is this present moment in the history of Malaysian media? What lessons are the media learning and how is it affecting the resolve of journalists to produce hard-hitting reporting?

Gan: I think we are going through very hard times for journalism in Malaysia. Never before did you have a news website being blocked even when Mahathir was in power.

And he was a strongman. We were around during those days. He never blocked Malaysiakini or other websites. So I think we are going through really uncharted territories.

The government is in survival mode and they are willing to do whatever they can to stop discussion on the issue of 1MDB. So I think we are going through really hard times.

I don’t think we should allow ourselves to be beaten by the government because we have enjoyed press freedom, to some extent, over the past 15 years since the advent of the internet. And I think Malaysians have learned to appreciate the free flow of information that they can find online. It would be very hard for the government to roll back.

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