McKenzie Wark on Mon, 6 Mar 2000 08:42:30 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-bold] Malaysian Media and the Net

from: Monday, 6th March

Mahathir caught in his own web of virtual freedom 
William de Cruz

Malaysia's leader never thought his IT baby would grow up like
this, writes William de Cruz.

FREEDOM of expression is alive, well and rampant in Malaysia,
where Dr Mahathir Mohamad rules with an iron hand over
mainstream press freedom. The delicious irony is that we should
thank Dr M himself, for giving ordinary Malaysians the space
within which to exercise their democratic right.

It's all happening within the reach of the World Wide Web, and the
development is the result of the doctor's own prescriptions for his
country to get IT, get the Internet, get rich.

Dr M is even building for Malaysians their superhighway - his
brainchild, the Multimedia Super Corridor, will be without equal in
the world, according to some.

A pro-Government mainstream media is now shamefully exposed,
entrenched under a control system that includes Dr M, his
governing coalition, legislation that his parliamentary majority will
rewrite at will, and senior politicians with links to media

But on Malaysia's Web, hard-hitting exposes, unabashedly
anti-Government tirades, thoughtful pro-Opposition analyses and
more are all being widely published every day.

Malaysia's pro-government media entrepreneurs are watching as
newspaper circulation and advertising revenue take a beating. On
the other side, dots make the picture complete, and Web pages such
as, and show that the
Government no longer has absolute control over the flow of

In Sydney, where press freedom may often be taken for granted, two
senior Malaysian media practitioners spoke recently with rare
candour to an international gathering of journalists.

At a Sydney University conference, Media and Democratisation in
the Asia Pacific, one Malaysian told the gathering: "I'd like to say,
'We can do what we want. We are free.' But you may not believe
me. We have to live with the constraints of ownership, regulation,
government and politics." The speaker was Hng Hung-Yong, who
recently vacated his position as CEO of the pro-government daily
The Sun.

Later, Rose Ismail, associate editor of The New Straits Times,
another pro-Dr M daily, said: "My Prime Minister will not be happy
to hear this, but some of us do look to our Australian counterparts
for standards and benchmarks."

The truth is, at least since the jailing of former deputy prime
minister and finance minister Anwar Ibrahim, senior journalists
and media owners need only to look within Malaysia itself for
examples of courageous journalism by ordinary citizens.

To be fair, it was never easy in Malaysia's mainstream media circles.
Only last Wednesday, the bi-weekly Harakah newspaper, owned by
an Opposition party, was told it would be able to publish only two
editions a month. 

Crowning the country's media control mechanism has been the
stranglehold of a legislative triumvirate - the OSA, ISA and PPPA
(respectively, the Official Secrets Act, Internal Security Act and
Printing, Presses & Publications Act) - which tell the big boys and
girls they may lose their publishing or broadcast licence, job, bank
balance, peace of mind and even freedom at the discretion of the

To lose any or all of the above under the PPPA, your publishing
action need only be defined as one that "is in any manner
prejudicial to, or likely to be prejudicial to, public order, morality,

Detention without trial under the ISA, the sweeping power of the
OSA and the practice of allowing the Home Minister (nearly always
the Prime Minister) to define "prejudicial" has long cultivated an
atmosphere of fear and intimidation while placing incredible power
in the hands of one man.

It has also helped spread the contagion of self-censorship, and
journalistic restraint has become an ignoble art form in the hands of
newspapers and state-controlled radio and TV.

In the lead-up to Malaysia's last national polls in November 1999,
Opposition parties were only ever portrayed in negative light,
advertising space was not theirs to buy with mere money and
scandalous allegations surrounding their leaders, their policies and
the incarcerated Anwar proliferated with zealous excess.

But life is what happens to you when you are busy making other
plans, as John Lennon wrote. Mahathir is realising his own IT
dream, and the Malaysian Web is publishing anything considered
"unfit to print" by the mainstream media.

Journalistic freedom in Malaysia, however, is more than a prize; as
surely as Dr M watches his brainchild become a nemesis, a price is
also paid when people are free to post incorrect information,
ill-informed comment and even untruth on the Web.

Yet, Web propaganda and misinformation are not as much of a
threat to the full picture as one might imagine. All Malaysians are
now free to promote any propaganda through this medium, in a
country where the Government previously exercised exclusive
rights to press excess.

Sydney's Bala Pillai, who set up, one of the earlier Web
sites that reflect this newfound freedom, says: "On the Internet,
there is a chance to correct misleading information, and sites that
repeatedly push this soon lose their credibility." In other words,
everybody's free on the Net, where no-one is free from being
proved wrong or outed as a purveyor of lies and propaganda.

Mahathir never thought his IT baby would grow up like this. The
Malaysian visionary never thought he would give virtual freedom
to Malaysia.

William de Cruz worked for Malaysia's The New Straits Times
between 1978 and 1990. He is now a NSW public servant and a
freelance Sydney journalist.


"We no longer have roots, we have aerials."
 -- McKenzie Wark 

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