The Internet had begun chipping away at these assumptions and slowly gearing itself up to be the latter in the absence of independent news organisations in the country. There are several laws affecting journalists in the country. Under the Official Secret Act (OSA), almost all government documents can be labeled secret and thus cannot be released to the public. Then there is the Internal Security Act that allows detention without trial. A number of journalists have been arrested under this law. And the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) provides the government the right to suspend or revoke printing and publishing permits. And its decision is not subject to review or be challenged in court.
Despite the existing of these laws, the government is now rattled by the power of the Internet to be an effective news provider. However, the authorities should not be surprised by the new media's popularity or reach. It is a basic issue of supply and demand. The Malaysian public especially those in the urban areas is no longer content with "factual" news and now craves investigative reporting as well as neutral commentaries on issues that affect the country. The Internet to some degree satisfies these needs, with online news sites like the now-defunct AgendaMalaysia and Malaysiakini filling the void. This is a natural phenomenon as a society grows and develops in line with the government's aspirations for a more knowledgeable and inquisitive citizenry.
Sreejit Pillai is a senior journalist at Malaysia.CNET.com. But it seems the government is backtracking from its earlier public proclamations of allowing Internet plays to flourish without hindrance. Malaysiakini which has garnered a lot of national and international interest, has now been tarred with the "anti-national" brush. The latest episode widely carried in the government-controlled news and television media was the insinuation that Malaysiakini was financially backed by billionaire George Soros who were publicly blamed by Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad for the regional crisis which wracked the country's economy two years ago.
Even though there were inconveniences posed against Web site last year such as the directive by the authorities not to issue official press accreditations to Malaysiakini journalists, the recent attacks against the Web site and its journalists particularly the two founder members Steven Gan and Premesh Chandran have been unexpectedly harsh. Dr Mahathir was recently quoted as saying "those who love Malaysia don't support Malaysiakini" after the alleged Soros link was highlighted, thereby casting a pall over Malaysiakini employees' loyalties to the country. And shortly after that, there were even death threats against Premesh who is the chief executive officer of the online medium.
Asked about the attacks, Premesh said the actions seemed to be an organised attack on the credibility of the news site as well as to undermine and harass its journalists. Malaysiakini has not ruled out legal action to defend its position as an organisation that claims to put editorial independence on the forefront. The government cannot stop the Web site from operating; that would be tantamount to censoring the Internet, something it cannot afford to do as it wants to attract information communication technology (ICT) companies to the country's Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC).
Observers had predicted that the situation would "cool off" in the coming weeks, citing a possible diversionary tactic by the government in light of the current Malay unity dialogue scenario between the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant political party in the government and the Malay-based opposition party, the Pan Islamic Party (PAS).
Sreejit Pillai is a senior journalist at Malaysia.CNET.com. But the fence mending or rather a truce of sorts may have already started to occur. Malaysiakini yesterday, had a meeting with a top government official, Information Ministry parliamentary secretary Zainuddin Maidin over the recent incidents. Zainuddin was quoted by the National News Agency (Bernama) as saying, "I told them (Malaysiakini) let bygones be bygones, let us start a new era ... these issues should not stop us from cooperating." But the Prime Minister's ominous statements hinting foreign agents and Malaysiakini are one and the same cannot be erased so quickly. The sooner the government wakes up to local Internet news sites, the better. In this new IP age, a nimble foot will get you further than a lumbering and stubborn gait.
But in reality, the whole episode is a storm in a teacup. The government has more bigger issues to worry about than "going after" a Web site which disseminates news outside the control of the authorities. It is an open secret that a newspaper or television station sometimes receives a phone call not to carry certain news items. It is also not uncommon to have a news editor check with politicians first before deciding whether to carry the story or not.
But the government still has the upper hand in the handling of news. The penetration rate of the Internet is still very low. Even though the country is perhaps the second country in Southeast Asia to embrace the Net, its adoption rate leaves a lot to be desired. The total number of Internet subscribers in the country was 1.5 million by the end of last year and expected to hit 2 million by 2001. How many actually access the Internet without an ISP account is anyone's guess but many of these subscribers are concentrated in a few pockets in the country. Thus access to Malaysiakini's brand of news is virtually off-limits to most of the country's 22 million people. The government has more to worry about the Opposition's offline publications rather than the editorial desk at the modest Malaysiakini office.
Sreejit Pillai is a senior journalist at Malaysia.CNET.com.