Malaysiakini NEWS

Mahathir's IT baby turns enemy

William de Cruz  |  Published:  |  Modified:

Freedom of expression is alive, well and rampant in Malaysia, where Prime Minister 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 ownership.

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 malaysiakini.com, saksi.com and reformasi.com show that the government no longer has absolute control over the flow of information.

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 government.

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, security".

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 Malaysia.net, 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 New Straits Times between 1978 and 1990. He is now a freelance writer based in Sydney. This article first appeared in Sydney Morning Herald .

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