Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Artikel 2: The paradox of Malaysian online journalism


Malaysia has experienced a number of incidences that challenged its national security and social harmony. The condition of interethnic relations among Malaysians is not always peaceful. Political disagreement and hostilities resulted from religious extremism were also evidenced in the past that to a certain extent marked intricacies of Malaysia’s social setting. Part of the contributory variables is the multiethnic composition of the society, which distinctively highlights differences of religious belief, culture, language, customary practices and even ethnic complexion. Between 1945 and 2000 there were at least 30 racial-aggression incidences and crises recorded nationally (Means 1976; Andaya and Andaya 1982; Mohd Hamdan 1993; Malek 2000; Pereira 2001). The 13th May racial fight[1] (May 1969), the Memali rebellions[2] (November 1985), the Kampong Rawa[3] (March 1998) tragedy, the Kampong Medan[4] racial conflict (March 2000), and the Al-Maunah[5] insurgency (July 2000) are some of the major catastrophes clouding Malaysia’s efforts towards national security and social harmony. 

The social catastrophes are further disturbed as most social institutions in Malaysia that involves its multiethnic society, are drawn along ethnic lines such as ethnic-based mass media, ethnic-based education system, and in particular the ethnic-based political institutions. For that reason, Malaysia has developed as a plural society; the social concept, by which members of a society:
…mix but do not combine. Each group holds by its own religion, its own culture and language, its own ideas and ways. As individuals, they meet, but only in the market place in buying and selling. There is a plural society, with different sections of the community living side by side, but separately, within the same political unit. Even in the economic sphere, there is a division of labour along racial lines (Furnival 1956:304).

Furnival implies that within such a society, interethnic relationships among the different ethnic groups are only functional, where they communicate mainly in the marketplace or at their workplace, rather than establishing closer personal relationships.

The pattern of ethnic based mass media in Malaysia is seen through the establishment of ethnic-based presses that cater to the appeal of each of the different ethnic groups. Such pattern ignores the formation of a collective idea regarding national agenda and national integration. Under such ethnic-based style we also see that each medium carries the tendency to extend more coverage of issues that concerned the respective communities and thus promotes ethnic nationalism rather than Malaysian nationalism (Halimahton 1997).  For that the government believed that the media significantly needs to be controlled.

As far as journalists are concerned, the most intrusive media control is the Printing Presses and Publication Act 1984 (PPPA) (Gan 2003:1). It gives the government power to suspend or revoke printing and publishing permits, which need to be renewed annually. Its decrees are not subject to review or challenge in court. The Act stipulates that:
A potential publisher must secure a license to use a printing press and a permit to publish a newspaper. Both must be renewed annually through The Ministry of Home Affairs, which can withdraw either without cause at any time…All license holders must guarantee that their publications will not distort facts relating to public order incidents in Malaysia, will not inflame or stir communal hostility or use material likely to prejudice public order or national security (Lent 1982:263).

In relation to such media control, considerable numbers of political observers perceived democratic practices during Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s (the former Prime Minister) administration in 1980s and 1990s as unfavourable. While some described such period as semi-democracy (Kroef 1957; Case 1993; Crouch 1993; Abbott 2004), others perceived it as authoritarian (Vorys 1975; Munro-Kua 1996; Heryanto and Mandal 2003). Even though during the 1980s and 1990s, the government had successfully improved Malaysia’s economic achievement, the price may have been the democratic condition of the state, which included a noticeably oppressed press that did not support freedom of speech and of expression (Human Rights Watch 1998; Asian Human Rights Commission 1999; Human Rights Watch 1999).

Online journalism and freedom of the press and of expression

This paper adheres to the idea that online journalism is not simply online news, but covers a much diverse area of online newspapers, informative websites, weblogs, bulletin boards, and chat rooms, where news sources, webmaster, and participants discuss, share and debate ideas, opinions and thoughts that concerned public interest (Millison 1999; Allen 2000; Hall 2001; Wolk 2001; Deuze 2003; Gunter 2003).

The basic principle is that online journalism is ‘quality news and information posted on the World Wide Web, where people can read, see, hear it through their computers and other similar devices’ (Wolk 2001:6).

At a wider spectrum, online journalism changes ‘the philosophy underlying the form of journalism’ (Ward 2003:9); it brings about a new philosophy of reader, readership and journalism. Online journalism has toned down the role of journalists, allowed vertical and horizontal flow of communication, huge space, global audience, customisation of news selection and the irrelevance of gatekeepers and more democratic space.

However I would like to note that, in Malaysia, there are distinct differences between independent online journalism as compared to that of online version of the mainstream presses. The online versions of the mainstream presses are principally ‘mirror’ of their print versions, which also tell us that they are abided to the Printing Presses and Publication Act 1984 (PPPA 1984) and precisely the licensee system.

The potential of online journalism

It is notable that freedom of expression as reflected in dissenting pieces, social and political criticism, discourse on issues of judiciary accountability, police brutality and public corruption never before discussed in such diversity in the traditional mass media, have become common in online journalism, especially independent online newspapers, weblogs, and NGOs websites (Amnesty International 1999; Asian Human Rights Commission 1999; Human Rights Watch 1999). Important issues linked to democracy, human and civil rights, and issues of ethnicity and religion, generally suppressed from the mainstream mass media have filled most of the space in online journalism particularly during and after the 1998-political crisis.

In Malaysian political history, the 1998-political crisis denotes a critical point of freedom of the press, which also marked ‘an explosion of online journalism’ (Abbott 2004:85; Gomez 2004:2), which was significantly supported by the enactment of CMA 1998. That was the period when we could see the minorities, the NGOs, civil and human rights activists, intellectuals as well as politicians across different ethnic backgrounds taking part in online journalism to have their voices communicated and be informed.

The impacts of independent online newspapers on the mainstream mass media during those periods were notable. As for instance Zakiah (2000) and Arfaeza (2002) observe that between 1999 and 2000, the readership of all mainstream presses except for the Star and Guang Ming dailies plunged between 1.5 percent and 37.5 percent. The year 1999 marked the ‘explosion of online journalism’ partly because of the effects of the CMA 1998 that assured ‘non-censorship’ of Internet content.

In May 2000, over 500 journalists, largely from the mainstream mass media, signed a memorandum urging the government to repeal media laws, most importantly the PPPA 1984. ‘These journalists argued that the credibility of the media was at stake as Malaysians increasingly turned to alternative sources of information’ (Siong 2004:298).

The portrayal of online journalism as alternative media is also seen during the 1998-political crisis. It is an alternative media in the sense that it satisfies demand for different content, catering to different tastes, interests and orientations not catered to by mainstream mass media output (Sreberny-Mohammadi and Mohammadi 1997:221). Some scholars use the terms alternative media and radical media interchangeably because journalism primarily concerned with social and often revolutionary change (Atton 2002:9). In an environment where the authority oppresses alternative media, it is normally because they are associated with vibrant social and political reform. In such cases, they are described as radical media (Atton 2002:9-10) because they dare to project what the mainstream mass media dare not discuss

Social issues projected through online journalism

From a different perspective we could also see that the freedom attained from CMA 1998 had also contributed certain trends of social phenomenon. As to mention a few, the following accounts show that online journalism is contributory to some issues that are causal to some form of anxiety among Malaysians. They suggest causal effects to public anxiety because some of the information projected were mainly speculative and had been sensationalised. Thus some of the stories highlighted through independent online journalism, which most of them are principally social and political criticism had accumulated undercurrent discontentment among the public against the authority. To a certain extent some of the stories and reports had caused damage to particular public figures as they were found wrong and fallacious.

In 2001 Hishamuddin Rais, an online columnist for Malaysiakini, was sentenced for two years under the ISA 1960. Hishamuddin article ‘Pilihanraya or pilihan jalan raya’ (General Election or Street Demonstration) was full of critical views against the government and had ridiculed the integrity of the Malaysian Election Commission that raised resentment among the commission’s officers as well as the ruling parties. Arfaeza (2002) affirms,
Malaysiakini columnist Hishamuddin Rais is …under ISA detention …after writing the article ‘Pilihanraya atau pilihan jalanraya’ in his weekly column ‘Dotmai’ [in Malaysiakini]. Although the 51-year-old writer cum film producer has succeeded in challenging the arrest, the government had refused to release him …[for the reasons] of national security. 

In 2003, corresponding to the contagious and deadly illness called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS, a Malaysian online newspaper, Malaysiakini, had quoted reports from an opposition party that the Malaysian Home Ministry ‘had officially directed all major English language newspapers to ‘adjust their reports on SARS by leaving out any mention of fatalities’. The news were later speculated and turned out as rumours charging Malaysian government to conceal the presence of some suspected SARS patients for reasons to avoid public chaos. In China, the disease had caused a large numbers of deaths (Tang Hang Wu 2006:11).

In 2004, Screenshots, one of Malaysian popular weblogs wrote an opinion piece regarding Islam Hadhari, the Prime Minister’s (Abdullah Badawi) conception on progressive Islam. A reader of Screenshots left a comment that matched Islam Hadhari to excrement (Tang Hang Wu 2006:11). The irresponsible attitude of the concerned reader was that, while he stated his name as ‘Anwar’ to reflect his Malayness, he registered his email address as tongsanchai@yahoo.com that implied his ethnicity as a Chinese descent. The implication is that the comment had inflamed public aggression, especially to the Malaysian Muslims for the blasphemous remarks on Islam. The mainstream mass media then responded aggressively against Screenshots. Later in 2005, Jeff Ooi, the webmaster of Screenshots was called by the police because a criminal complaint was made against him, even though the real culprit named Anwar was successfully tracked down.

Online journalism is also seen to speculate rumours that the current murder case of a Mongolian lady had involved a high rank figure of Malaysian politician. As Malaysia Alternative Voices asserts:
Pressure mounts in Kuala Lumpur to put the brakes on a scandal-tainted Malay politician. Speculation is increasing in Malaysia that one of the country‘s elite politicians, …is in serious trouble due to a series of messy scandals. There is considerable speculation that [the politician] will be forced to step down from national politics (Malaysia Alternative Voices 2007)

A speculative piece posted through online journalism also charged that [high profile Malaysian politician] gained commission totalled up to RM400 million in a deal to purchase Russian Sukhoi.
On the Al-Jazeera television network, questioned commissions paid over the purchase of 18 Russian Sukhoi-30 jet fighters in 2003. ‘There are complicities over the huge and massive commissions accrued by the government involving [a top minister]. [The Minister] said he wouldn't respond to [those] charges. But, he told reporters recently, "Don't listen to the stories on the internet...they are all a myth. We should not react hastily, we must stick to principles and the truth...what is important is that we understand and know who will help us" (Malaysia Alternative Voices 2007) 

Online journalism was also seen to be responsible to speculate rumours that the Deputy Home Minister was involved in corruption. He was said to use his position and being paid RM5 million to release three convicts detained under ISA. However ACA interrogation found that he was defamed.
Then there is the unrelated case of the Deputy Internal Security Minister… He is in the spotlight over a claim accusing him of accepting RM5 million to assist in freeing several suspects detained under Malaysia’s Emergency Ordinance, which covers suspects accused of serious crimes. Local news reports say the released suspects are believed to have been involved in gangsterism, prostitution, illegal gambling, and illicit money lending  (Imran Imtiaz Shah 2007)

The Inspector General of Police Department was also charged through online journalism as to involve in corruption. However ACA investigation shows that the allegation was found to be untrue. Earlier Malaysia Today wrote:
Since Malaysia Today first revealed the unholy alliance between the Chinese organised crime syndicate and the Royal Malaysian Police, a few brave souls have come forward to testify what we wrote [regarding] Malaysia’s organised crime syndicate …is not only true, but is in fact much worse than what we said. …Of all things, a Chinese police officer has come forward to expose his corrupt Malay colleagues when he could instead have just gone on the take and kept his mouth shut. …According to ASP Hong, on 20 June 2006 he was instructed by his Director …to launch an investigation into the Chinese organised crime syndicate in Johor and Melaka. …What was more frightening was the revelation …that the Chief of Police was the patron of this new ‘national’ organised crime syndicate (Raja Petra 2006).

The implication; social tension

The above accounts regarding the content of online journalism suggest that the freedom of the press, of speech and expression conferred to online journalism or in general the Internet have contributed to social tension among Malaysians. It is social tension because it promotes undercurrents of discontentment within the society with regards to speculative, defamation, libellous, negative criticisms and irresponsible discourses that may jeopardise interethnic relation as well as the dignity of the nation. They are seen contributory to social tension because the stories posted are seemingly lacking a discipline of verification. For that reason the obligation to the truth is likely to be ignored and would lead to fallacy, speculative and sensationalised pieces. The implication would be causal to social tension when defamation, libellous, seditious, and racism materials were posted and globally accessed.

The bloggers phenomenon is another issue when such stories as above openly invites readers and viewers to post personal comment on what they read and watch. As for instance, a blogger had posted an arrogant comment on one of Malaysia’s political leaders regarding the issue of the VIP plane purchase. It says:
Really shock to read the news. This bloody old man is using Islam Hadari to cover up his sins and corrupt practices. How come Malaysia has such a stupid leader who spends lavishly and doesn’t care much about the welfare of the Rakyat? How come the boleh land has an idiotic and sleeping PM, who is unaware of the current domestic and world events? I think all Muslims should come out to teach him a lesson in the next general election or else Malaysia will go down to the hell. Although I don't live in Malaysia, I really feel very sad for what have been happening in our country since this old serpent took over the helm from Mahathir. May Allah bless Malaysia (Kojima 2007).

We could see that filthy words such as ‘bloody old man’, ‘a stupid leader’, ‘an idiotic and sleeping PM’, ‘go down to hell,’ and ‘old serpent’, were lavishly and emotionally used by the blogger in his comments. He is seemingly irresponsible because he hid himself through an anonymous identity and his out of country location would further obsess him for offensive and wicked words.

Thus, despite the democratic space of online journalism, this paper advocates that it has become a key catalyst of social tension and quite apparent to continue to add more social tension within Malaysia’s multiethnic society. Unfortunately, this kind of sensationalised and speculative stories could strongly win the attention from the public. The implication would be causal to social tension when defamation, libellous, seditious, and racism materials were posted and globally accessed. The condition would be fatal to a nation such as Malaysia when ethnic, language, cultural and religious differences are distinct and considered sensitive for open criticisms.

This paper advocates that such inclination would also expose online journalism to hatred campaign if it were to lead to political disagreement and dispute.


In the light of the above discussion, I would not deny that there is more democratic space within online journalism, especially when it is exempted from the PPPA 1987 and further ensured for free-of-censorship through CMA 1998 and the MSC Bill of Guarantees. However the current social and political conditions have implied that the freedom attained are causal to the undercurrents of discontentment. Such undercurrents of discontentment are described as social tension and may likely to be blown up into racial aggression or public commotion. The social segmentation and distinct differences in terms of religion, culture, language, custom and even ethnic complexion are also seen as supportive variables to such trend. Parallel to what Dr Goh Cheng Teik, one of Malaysia’s prominent politicians had advocated, the social tension could develop into a ‘time bomb’ (Teik 1978:34). Thus online journalism has also portrayed itself as a paradox to Malaysian social and political milieus.


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[1] The 13th May 1969 racial fight refers to the Chinese-Malay bloody war in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, which caused the government to declare a state of national emergency and suspending the Parliament (Tunku A Rahman 1969). The tragedy had taken away a significant numbers of lives.
[2] Memali rebellion refers to an incident that highlights war between followers of an opposition party from a remote village of Memali against the authority. The central issue was their loyalty to a cleric who was allegedly accused as government’s enemy. It led to a bloody fight between some villagers who were trying to protect the cleric, and the police. The incident claimed 14 deaths (Rahman 1999).
[3] The Kampong Rawa tragedy is considered as racial dispute that resulted from the ‘close proximity’ between a Hindu temple and a Muslim mosque of Kampong Rawa. The incident almost caused a racial fight when thousands of Malays gathered at the Kampong Rawa Mosque in attempt to attack the Indian communities because of dispute over noises caused by the nearby Hindu temple (Hilley 2001:123) .
[4] Kampong Medan incident was a racial-clash that involves some Malays and Indians. Five people were killed, 37 injured and 153 arrested in four days of clashes between residents in a racially-mixed district near Kuala Lumpur, although local residents claimed the death and injury toll were higher. (Jayakumar 2001:16).
[5] Al-Maunah is a named given to a group of Malay cultist, which was formed to oust the former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. In July 2000, some cult members disguised themselves as soldiers and stole more than 100 weapons from two military armouries. They then retreated to a jungle hideout where they broadcasted calls over army radio for Mahathir to quit. The group surrendered after four days during which they murdered a police officer and a soldier they had held hostage. Some observers see the incident as racism since the group had earlier threatened a Church and a Hindu temple (Cameron-Moore 2001).


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