FREE EXPRESSION

in Asian Cyberspace

Merdeka Day thoughts on media freedom

KUALA Lumpur — Malaysians celebrated Merdeka Day yesterday marking 49 years of the country’s independence from British colonial rule amid brewing racial and religious tensions that threaten the already fragile unity of Malaysia’s multi-racial society.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi acknowledged the situation in his independence day message as he appealed for unity, respect and cooperation among the country’s ethnic groups of Malays, Chinese and Indians, stressing that the strength of Malaysians lies in maintaining their solidarity.

But beyond race-based political problems, some consider issues pertaining to the rights of contemporary Malaysians, particularly freedoms of speech and expression, to be as serious and paramount, and hence deserve reflecting on in light of Merdeka Day.

Youth leaders like Lee Khai Loon, convenor of Youth for Change (Y4C), for instance, rue the divide-and-rule system the country inherited from the British that remains deeply rooted in Malaysian society. “Independence should not only mean the sovereignty of the country, but how the people live. Are they living in dignity and free from fear? Are they free from control by the authority?” he asks.

Steven Gan, founder and editor-in-chief of Malaysiakini, the country’s acknowledged independent online news site, says that Malaysians, rather than focusing on things that divide them, should instead find common aspirations in democracy, press freedom, and human rights.

In order to uphold the principle of Merdeka, the 28-year-old Lee says the government should ensure that the people are enjoying the fruits of the struggle against the colonial power. By this, he means that the government should not resort to implementing all kinds of repressive laws to prohibit the people to speak out and express themselves.

Yet despite harassments faced by online journalists and bloggers, Gan believes that the government is fighting a losing battle. The country, he says, is on the right path, with the Internet helping to expand democratic space.

“When Malaysiakini came into the picture six years ago, we were very much the only website around. Now we are joined by bloggers and other websites. I think it’s a good thing. There’s safety in numbers. There are more people out there. In that sense, we feel that we are no longer alone,” says Gan.

Below are excerpts of my interview with him:

How would you describe the state of media freedom in the country on the occassion of Merdeka Day?

In Malaysia, we have a situation where we have freedom of speech but no freedom after speech. The Malaysian Constitution guarantees freedom of speech but the government over the many years since Merdeka has made so many changes to the Constitution and passed quite a lot of legislations that restrict press freedom.

So compared to the other countries in Southeast Asia, while we are definitely a little much better than Singapore, we are far behind other countries like Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.

How do you see the situation of online free speech and expression in light of the recent incident involving yet another comment on Jeff Ooi’s blog?

I think this is basically a reaction from the authorities in the sense that they are finding it very hard to come to terms with the growing space that is being made available because of the emergence of the Internet. For a very long time, the government has more or less complete monopoly on the truth in Malaysia through its control over the mainstream media, especially newspapers, TV and radio stations. And they do that through the licensing regime where if you want to continue publishing, you need to apply for a license. And that has to be renewed every year. And also through the ownership, we have a situation where a lot of the media organizations are directly or indirectly owned by ruling political parties.

That has been the case until more recently where the government is no longer in a position to really control the Internet. They are looking perhaps for excuses to clamp down on the Internet, on some of the more colorful postings that we see in the more influential blogs like Jeff Ooi’s which have managed to get some attention from the authorities. And they are using these against them.

Malaysiakini, of which you were the founder and currently the editor-in-chief was a reaction to this restrictive media regime. But you yourselves have experienced such restrictions.

I think we are being put in the same basket with all the other online media and we face the same kinds of attacks from the government. About two years ago, we were raided by the police and we continue to face constant harassment. We know that we are being closely watched. So everytime that we make, whether it’s a mistake or a lapse on our part, we get hit, sometimes to the point that police reports are made against us and there will be an investigation.

Only recently, last month, we had four police officers visiting Malaysiakini for a small mistake that we made. Well, it’s fair enough. In a media situation when you’re running a daily news website, there will be times that unfortunately we do mistakes because everything moves so fast.

When that happens, as in our case, when (former prime minister) Mahathir (Mohamad) was visiting Kota Baru, we had a reporter there at the airport, and he (Mahathir) was attacked with pepper spray. It looked to our reporter that the attackers were the police because of the fact that a number of people were dressed in black, wearing dark glasses and all that. Turned out they were military officers who are moonlighting as bodyguards.

So we reported wrongly. And after we double-checked and found that we were wrong, we ran an update an hour after that and took out the references to the police. But the police, they themselves filed a report against them.

We see that more or less as harassment because we already said that we were willing to apologize. Also, that piece of news only appeared for no more than one hour. And it wasn’t like it could have somehow defamed the police. But I think the police were waiting for this chance to really get back at us because of the fact that we have been writing a lot of reports about them for many years.

Despite the relatively liberal atmosphere allowed in cyberspace, why do the harassments and investigations persist?

Definitely, the authorities are trying to use whatever existing laws they have to harass bloggers and websites like Malaysiakini. Eventually, they wouldn’t have enough proof to really charge us in court but they can create problems for us in terms of we having to be interrogated, this and that. If there is a raid on our office, they can take our computers. Because like in the raid that happened to us two years ago, eventually no charges were made. They did not have enough proof to take us to court. Our computers were returned to us. But that period has created problems for us.

And it also creates fear among people who are writing on the Internet. There are some people who may not be so confident. They get spooked by others who have faced harassment. There’s this fear that they could be next. It does have some impact…and also on our readers, people are also scared whether they should still read Malaysiakini. Would they be found out by their employers that they are subscribers of Malaysiakini? It creates an atmosphere of fear.

So you think this would continue?

I think it will continue but the government is on the losing side. When Malaysiakini came into the picture six years ago, we were very much the only website around. Now we are joined by bloggers and other websites. I think it’s a good thing. There’s safety in numbers. There are more people out there. In that sense, we feel that we are no longer alone.

With that we feel a lot more confident. The government cannot pick on one person or one website. There are a hell lot more websites and bloggers that they have to worry about. So in that sense, they are fighting a losing battle.

I also heard that there are now journalists becoming bloggers…

Yeah. Recently, you see a number of journalists setting up their own blogs. And that also helps to increase the level of professionalism among bloggers when you have journalists blogging. It helps to provide an edge to the blogs. A lot of times, blogs are only of interest to their own peers and friends. But I think with academics, journalists, professionals doing it, it gives the additional sort of edge to the issues they are discussing. In a sense that’s good.

The Internet has evolved to some extent. When we launched Malaysiakini six years ago, we were perhaps the first wave. I see now, five or six years later, we are seeing a second wave, a second revolution. And it will continue to develop in the coming years. And perhaps, the bloggers will become even more influential.

So you believe the online media and bloggers are expanding democracy in Malaysia?

I think they have the capacity to do that. Whether they are using it, I don’t know. If you look at the number of bloggers we have, I would say that 99 percent are not using the technology to really try to expand democracy and all that. A handful are seeking to do that, people like Jeff Ooi. It’s unfortunate. There should be more bloggers who should be making use of the technology to help to give more voice and offer their own opinions in order to create more discussion among Malaysians.

I do hope that the other bloggers would at least start talking about issues I consider that matter — crime and corruption, press freedom rather than about the type of cereal that they eat for breakfast or something like that.

The Internet has the capacity to promote the free flow and exchange of information and through that enhance democracy. But it really depends on the bloggers.

How long will it take for that to happen?

If you look at Malaysia, it’s already 49 years of independence from the British colonial masters. I think Malaysia is a very unique society in the sense that it’s highly multi-racial. Even the majority ethnic group is not an overwhelming majority. You are looking at 55-60 percent. In that sense you have a large minority. On top of that we are also divided in terms of religion and language.

And Malaysia is also one of the very few countries where you have racially-based political parties. That is not really helping in promoting unity because all these political parties pandered to their own constituencies.

Those are major problems, it’s a very complex society. I don’t think things would change very fast. But I am very confident that we are gearing at least towards the right direction, in the sense that websites and bloggers are helping to create a more interracial and ethnic dialogue among the different races. Through that you can see that they have a lot more things in common — in democracy, press freedom and human rights — than those that divide them.

September 1, 2006 - Posted by | Free Expression in Asia

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