“We knew we needed to offer a website with reliable information, and we needed to make a political impact,” he says.
“Beyond providing dissenting news, Malaysiakini has shown many Malaysians that there is more than one point of view, and that it is legitimate to question authority.”
Malaysiakini: The upstart that changed Malaysia’s media landscape
By Jonathan Head
BBC News, South East Asia correspondent
Published4 hours ago
Tucked away in an unremarkable business park in a suburban district of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur is the headquarters of a remarkable experiment in journalism. It has come under attack.
On Friday the independent news website Malaysiakini was found guilty of contempt. It now has to pay a hefty fine of RM500,000 (£88,500, $123,600) . Its editor-in-chief and co-founder Steven Gan narrowly escaped a prison sentence after he was found not guilty for a similar charge.
The attorney-general filed the charges last year based on readers’ critical comments about the judiciary posted on Malaysiakini’s website, and later removed, a move with worrying implications for all news media.
Malaysiakini’s success so far, its very survival, are all the more remarkable in a country where all news media was once subject to government control, and in a region where truly independent, quality journalism is difficult, dangerous and often driven to the margins.
Back in 1999 Steven Gan and Pramesh Chandran saw an opportunity to create Asia’s first online daily news site.
They were both former student activists who worked at Malaysia’s The Sun newspaper, and had grown frustrated by official censorship through the requirement to have a licence to publish, and through extensive ownership of mainstream media outlets by pro-government interest groups.
“I was a believer in media freedom, yet we saw its limits in Malaysia every day we worked as journalists”, he told the BBC in an interview before the verdict.
The catalyst was the dramatic dismissal and then arrest of Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in September 1998, a popular figure seen until then as the designated successor to then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who had been in office for 17 years and dominated Malaysian politics.
It was the start of an epic tussle for power between the two men which would last many years. Steven recalls that several journalists discussed using the then new medium of the internet to report what other media would not.
Based in the suburban district of Petaling Jaya, Malaysiakini started with just three journalists, initially hoping to fund themselves through partnership with an internet café, then with advertising from internet start-ups during what was then the dotcom boom. It was fortunate to receive a $100,000 grant from the Bangkok-based South East Asia Press Alliance.
It survived the failure of the café, the dotcom bust, and outright hostility from the government, with the Prime Minister accusing Malaysiakini journalists in 2001 of behaving like traitors, and barring them from official press conferences.
Over the years it has endured several police raids, threatened criminal charges and prosecutions. Throughout, said Steven Gan, they insisted their reporters maintain high standards of journalism.
“We are new media but we practise old media rules,” he said.
But perhaps the most important decision was an early focus on finding a viable business model for the site, long before other mainstream media had started to question theirs in the digital era.
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