Saturday, 27 October 2012

Will convergence bring more press freedom?

  • Ross Tapsell
  • 9:43AM Oct 27, 2012
COMMENT On Oct 1, a High Court judge ruled that Malaysiakini, which was established as an independent online news site during the reformasi movement in 1999, should be allowed to enter the print news market. has been consistently critical of the government since its creation, and the decision by the High Court justice overruled the Home Ministry's verdict, which denied Malaysiakini a print newspaper permit.

While the government can still appeal and the home minister will still need to concur with the judge's decision, this ruling may give rise to the creation of other media ventures in Malaysia.

The lawyer for Malaysiakini said: "It should open the floodgates for more publications in Malaysia. Anybody should be allowed to publish." As such, many see the ruling as a victory for press freedom in the country.

anwar interview on off the edge magazine 070806 coverThe recent history of independent journalism ventures in Malaysia is not particularly bright.

Off The Edge magazine was created in 2005, but ceased publication in 2010 after a string of losses. Editor Jason Tan said the lessons he learnt were "that you should never take your eye off the ball - the ball being the business and all the different parts that make it work".

Jacqueline Surin started The Nutgraph in 2008 "to improve the standards and benchmark of journalism and to be fair and kind to all sexualities and genders". But The Nutgraph shut its office and retrenched everyone in August 2010, although the online site is still partially maintained. Among the many lessons that Surin learnt was that "providing good journalism is expensive".

The Chinese-language Merdeka Review, established in 2005, became defunct two months ago. In its self-written eulogy, its editors wrote that readers "are not willing to spend an extra dime to keep Merdeka Review going", and that "while our society appears to appreciate a truly independent media platform, it fails to keep it going. Why has this happened?"

Malaysiakini's investment into a daily English-language print newspaper comes at an uncertain time for the newspaper industry in Malaysia.

newspaper coverage sudden balanced view coverage of opposition headline 120308Circulation figures have dropped in the past five years by 5.9 percent for Utusan Malaysia, 3.1 percent for The Star, 9.5 percent for the New Straits Times and 12.3 percent for Berita Harian. Only Harian Metro's circulation figures (in West Malaysia) have increased since 2005.

While some press freedom activists argue these figures show Malaysians are tired of government-sponsored messages veiled as actual news, the reality is that print media circulation is dropping in most countries around the world where Internet penetration is rising.

Malaysia's Internet penetration rate is now 61.7 percent of the population, with 81 percent in populated areas. The young and urban population are highly wired online and are increasingly accessing news through social media, with 12 million Malaysians using Facebook.

Battle for convergence

So why would Malaysiakini bother to establish a print newspaper? Like many of their competitors, Malaysiakini realises that the key to competing in the media marketplace is through ‘convergence' - synchronising media platforms (such as online, broadcasting, print and video) into one media conglomerate.

Malaysiakini has already begun Malaysiakini TV and a YouTube channel, and is more active in blogging and Facebook.

The strategy of convergence has usually been undertaken to save a print publication by converging traditional news platforms with television, online news forms and, increasingly, blogging and social media. Thus, the aim is to connect the previously largely separate realms of online media and mainstream print and television media into one large news cycle.

What is interesting about Malaysiakini is that it is performing this convergence in reverse. That is, rather than moving from predominantly print media to building online content, Malaysiakini is moving from a respected online subscription-based news service to build a daily printed newspaper.

NONEMalaysiakini's chief executive officer Premesh Chandran (right) said after the court verdict: "We believe that Malaysiakini is a strong brand, and that the subscription and advertising revenue will be able to sustain [the new print newspaper] without any problem.

"We don't see it as competition. We are extending to groups who look to read a newspaper, besides say, those who read online."

What will media convergence mean for press freedom in Malaysia?

Press freedom activists in Malaysia hope that many Malaysians have quickly become used to expressing opinions online and through social media. If there is a convergence of these platforms, they hope that print newspapers will shift toward greater expression of viewpoints, including more coverage of the opposition.

But the government-owned mainstream media companies claim that Internet-savvy Malaysians are not necessarily looking for more critical voices in the news. Rather, the appeal of media comes from live and fast updates online and through social media platforms.

They argue that only the resource-rich mainstream media has the ability to facilitate all media platforms, and thus perform the convergence tactic effectively. They will also cite the previously failed independent journalism ventures explained above as further evidence that smaller media cannot survive in the 21st century media marketplace.

Malaysiakini may have won this round in getting support from the courts to allow them a print licence, but their battle in the convergent media marketplace is only just beginning.

Dr ROSS TAPSELL is a lecturer in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. He researches on press freedom in Southeast Asia. This article first appeared in East Asia Forum.

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