Breaking news and political precedent in Malaysia

17 April 2020
The journalists taking a stand for press freedom
As Australia grapples with issues around freedom of the press, Malaysia has made real progress. It is now rated as the most journalistically free nation in the Southeast Asian region. Premesh Chandran helped power that liberation and is using it as a tool for change.
I think there was never a situation where we were not under threat. It was just, are we going to get arrested tomorrow, or are we going to get arrested in six months?
Premesh Chandran

It was 2017, and the offices of Malaysia’s most popular news website, Malaysiakini, were under siege. Outside, a crowd of up to 1000 people was angry – very, very angry – about a video on the site’s TV channel critical of the government’s Attorney‑General, Mohamed Apandi Ali.

Ali was bringing charges against Malaysiakini under the Communications and Multimedia Act for refusing to withdraw the video. The crowd of government loyalists was intent on taking matters into its own hands. “They were banging at our gates and threatening to invade the compound,” remembers CEO Premesh Chandran (MIntS '96).

Police eventually dispersed the crowd and the courts cleared Malaysiakini. For Chandran and the site’s co‑founder and editor Steven Gan, it was just another day in the life of a news website that has, for the past 20 years, pushed the boundaries of press freedom in what was, until very recently, a virtual one‑party state.

That changed in 2018 with the election of the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition, which defeated the Barisan Nasional (National Front) that had ruled Malaysia since 1957, originally under the name: the Alliance Party.

A past that held back the future

The old Barisan Nasional government was reviled for its self‑serving use of cial and religious division, and massive corruption, including the disappearance of $4.5 billion dollars of public money. Crucially, Malaysiakini’s reporting – which survived a number of cyberattacks before the election – showed the public what was going on, and how the state media had been downplaying the significant opposition to the government’s behaviour.

Weeks before the vote, Malaysiakini took down its paywall so information on the candidates, their policies and the election process was freely available. Then on election night, its first‑time live coverage helped prevent later manipulation of the outcome.

In a supreme irony, the newly elected Pakatan Harapan was led by an alliance of two former bitter foes, Anwar Ibrahim and the now 94‑year‑old Dr Mahathir Mohamad – who is once again the prime minister (until he resigned in February this year, creating a new phase of instability).

Independent media, stronger democracy

Towards the end of his earlier 22‑year prime ministership, ending in 2003, Dr Mahathir had been both friend and foe to Malaysiakini, which began publishing in 1999. The news site was partly motivated by a promise made by Mahathir. As a way of hopefully attracting international investment to Malaysia, he said the then‑emerging internet would not be censored.

It’s a promise Chandran says Mahathir has largely abided by. “In principle, his current government is behind a much more independent media. We ask him tough questions, and he gives us tough answers, and I think that’s fine.”

The road hasn’t been easy. “I think there was never a situation where we were not under threat,” Chandran says. “It was just, are we going to get arrested tomorrow, or are we going to get arrested in six months? We were sued by the ruling party UMNO [United Malays National Organisation]; we were sued by [former prime minister] Najib Razak.”

An Australian connection

Chandran’s parents migrated to Australia in 1988. His parents made their home here, with his mother Bharati Jayachandran being a valued staff member of the University’s Faculty of Health Sciences for some 20 years.

Chandran himself felt he had work to do in Malaysia. After completing an undergraduate degree in physics at the University of New South Wales between 1989 and 1992, he returned to Malaysia. He came back in 1995 to pursue a Master of International Studies at the University of Sydney.

It was this degree, combined with Chandran’s own student activism, that prompted a move towards pursuing journalism back home. “I did work on human rights and political economy, and [the degree] gave me a more in‑depth understanding of the global economy and international relations.”

Starting the Malaysiakini website with Steven Gan – they had previously been refused a newspaper license  –  was bold to say the least. “I do think it was a big risk. From a political point of view, whether or not the government would allow us to publish, whether we would get arrested, whether there would be political prosecutions.”

Premesh Chandran, alumnus and co-founder of Malaysia's most popular news website Malaysiakini.

Determined pioneers of new media

This was in the early days of the internet. Since then, Malaysiakini’s ups and downs have mirrored, and often foreshadowed, the problems faced by international news publications in the online age. In 2002, under heavy pressure from the government, advertisers stayed away, and the portal was forced to introduce a paywall. Only 1000 subscribers joined in the first year.

“We had to write all the software for subscription. We had to come up with our own payment methods, because not many people used credit cards online. And there was no such thing as Wi‑Fi, so we were using the old dial‑up modems, and computers were expensive.”

The following year, police raided their offices, seizing 19 computers after the publication was accused of publishing a seditious letter. This may have actually helped Malaysiakini’s cause: readers rallied in support, and Mahathir reaffirmed his promise not to censor the internet, before his temporary retirement.

Now, Malaysiakini employs a staff of 120 people, reaching over eight million English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil readers per month – 750,000 daily. Initially, the lack of independent media meant the publication filled a void. Since then, Chandran says, it’s both surfed and led the country’s transition to a more robust and open democracy.

Revolution becomes evolution

The broad readership of Malaysiakini is a reflection of the multicultural, multi‑religious nature of Malaysia itself. Chandran says a democratic Malaysia can form a bridge to the western, Islamic, Hindu and Chinese worlds. “We have a lot of the ingredients from Asia, but we also have a very strong western community because we are a former British colony.”

Chandran says last year’s election marked an important step in the country’s democratic evolution. Since the country’s independence and first general elections in 1959, Malaysia has been led for 60 years by UMNO and Barisan Nasional. “The first political change is the toughest, and to do it peacefully through the ballot box, that’s not an easy process.”

Written by Andrew Stafford. Collage by Fabio Dias.

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