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.
Malaysiakini.com 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.
The 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.
Circulation 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Malaysiakini'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?
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
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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