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November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

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FEBRUARY 25, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 7

POLITICS.COM
Dr. M Meets New Media
Malaysia's premier has vowed a hands-off Internet policy. Now a plucky, online newspaper is taking him at his word
By ROBIN PAUL AJELLO


Chan Looi Tat for Asiaweek
Malaysiakini (Malaysia Now) editor Gan hopes to provide a credible alternative to the government-friendly media - and has already created a buzz

When word flew recently that Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had fallen off a horse while on holiday, the news appeared first not in the nation's newspapers but on the Internet. The reports turned out to be false and prompted a government warning about the dangers of trafficking in unsubstantiated information. But Dr. M, a self-proclaimed digerati, said the government would keep its mitts off the World Wide Web. "We have accepted that the Internet should be free," said Mahathir. "And we are not going to interfere."

The following day, Malaysiakini (Malaysia Now) applauded Mahathir's libertarian approach in an editorial. Malaysiakini had good reason to do so. As the nation's first commercial online newspaper, its very survival depends on Mahathir keeping his word. You could say Malaysiakini (50,000 hits a day) is a test-case for the government's tolerance of online media. And its uncensored survival would also send a message to international investors that Malaysia is serious about becoming a reliable player in the digital age.

Mahathir, of course, is a real pro when it comes to making the right noises. Because, as most everyone knows, the nation's record on press freedom is far from convincing - the government can and does muster powerful disincentives against those who think they should be able to write whatever they like. Publishing licenses can be revoked, official secrets acts invoked, and uncooperative editors can suddenly find themselves with a lot of free time. Just ask A. Kadir Jasin. He edited the government-friendly New Straits Times. Now he doesn't.

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The cool thing about online publications, of course, is that the government has less leeway to censor or intimidate them. While the Printing Presses and Publications Act defines publications in broad terms that theoretically could include e-news, jurisdictional problems could arise if the e-paper's server is located elsewhere. Guess what? Malaysiakini's server is in the U.S. Not that the editor is underestimating the wrath of the state. "We are not immune," says Steven Gan. "We double-check our facts and we have held many stories because we were not sure."

A new media publication with old media habits (fact-checking, objectivity, balance) might actually lure sophisticated eyeballs - and ads. Malaysiakini aims to stand tall amid the flood of unsubstantiated, unaccountable "news" gushing down the phone lines. "There is so much anonymous stuff, including rumor-mongering," says Gan. "All our reports have bylines and we stand by our stories."

Such stated dedication to getting the facts right impresses not just readers but journalists too. In the 1980s, scores of local reporters and editors left Malaysia after a government crackdown on the media. Today, some are heading instead for online publications like Malaysiakini. One is former New Straits Times columnist Amir Muhammad, whose "Perforated Sheets" was apparently considered anti-establishment. Today he writes the "Counter Culture" column for Malaysiakini. "The credibility of [Malaysia's] print media is at an all-time low," says Amir. "They do not pretend to be anything other than party political sheets."

Not that Malaysiakini is invulnerable. It received $100,000 in seed money from the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, founded in 1998 by journalists from Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. Editor Gan is "painfully aware" that he could be accused of getting support from foreigners. He hopes the fact that SEAPA is an ASEAN-based group will shield Malaysiakini. But Gan is quick to note that "no one, not even our investors, has any influence on editorial policy."

For now, providing a credible alternative to Malaysia's discredited mainstream media is job one for Gan and his six colleagues. They have yet to get accreditation from the information ministry and aren't allowed to attend official functions and press conferences. Yet they have interviewed such notables as International Trade & Industry Minister Rafidah Aziz.

Clearly Malaysiakini is creating something of a buzz. In one story, the paper revealed that a Chinese-language newspaper ran a photo in which the face of Anwar Ibrahim was digitally replaced with that of his successor as deputy PM, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. The paper also embarrassed opposition figure Chandra Muzaffar by revealing to the nation his on-off resignation. Call it a balancing act.

Reported by Santha Oorjitham/Kuala Lumpur

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