Malaysian Media

Very much like the rest of the developing world, the advent of the printing presses and the mass media in then Malaya was brought about by European colonialism.The first newspaper that was published in what is now known as Malaysia was the English-language Government Gazette, which was later christened as the Prince of Wales Island Gazette (PWIG).

The PWIG began publication on March 1, 1806 on the island of Penang, then a residency called Prince of Wales Island under the control of the British East India Company. Owned by an Indian entrepreneur, A.B. Bone, the PWIG was a commercial newspaper aimed not at the locals but at the colonialists and expatriates.

In the early 1800s, there was no law in the Straits Settlements governing the issuance of newspaper licences. The governor of Penang, however, found it imperative to issue a licence to Bone. Curiously, Bone himself made a request that the PIWG be censored by the government prior to publication.

Hence, it could be argued that this practice marked the beginning of the connection between the state and the press, and also of state intervention in the affairs of the media.

The PWIG endured for 21 years, its final edition being published on July 21, 1827. During that period, a few other newspapers, including non-English language ones, emerged but these normally stopped publication as quickly as they appeared.

Virtually all of the early newspapers, English language or vernacular, were published in the three Straits Settlement states of Singapore, Malacca and Penang.

There are reasons for the lack of newspapers published for the locals and in the Malay language during this period. Firstly, the poor economic status of the local, particularly Malay, community made it uneconomical for any commercially motivated publisher to start a paper in the Malay language.

And secondly, formal education was still non-existent for most people, which meant that literate people were very small in number and therefore made for a constrained market.

Indeed, it was not until 1876 that the first Malay weekly, Jawi Peranakan, was published in Singapore. The Jawi Peranakan and a few other Malay publications such as Al-Imam (1906-08), Utusan Melayu (1907-21), and Lembaga Melayu (1914-31) substantially helped to provide intellectual, political and religious leadership in the Malay community by highlighting issues regarding the development of the Malay community.

At about the same time, Singai Warthamani, the first Tamil newspaper published in British Malaya in 1875, joined subsequent publications by concentrating on social issues that concerned the Indian community, particularly issues that revolved around rubber estates.

In Sarawak, the publication of the Sarawak Gazette in 1870 marked the beginning of the history of the press in the state. In 1908, another newspaper, Sarawak Government Gazette, emerged. The first Malay newspaper, Fajar Sarawak, was published in 1930, and Chinese language newspapers Shen Won Kie Min Sing Pao and Xi Min Ri Bao were published in 1913 and 1927 respectively.

After the surrender of the Japanese military in Malaya in 1945, many of the newspapers that were outlawed during the Japanese Occupation, such as the Utusan Melayu, The Straits Times and the Malay Mail, made a comeback, while new ones, such as the Suara Rakyat, emerged.

This happened at a time when Malay nationalism was surging, especially provoked by the British proposal for a Malayan Union which was strongly opposed by many Malays. Malay language newspapers such as the Utusan Melayu, Majlis and Warta Negara played a key role in raising Malay consciousness regarding the controversial issue of the Malayan Union.

Four years into Merdeka, an incident occurred in the Malayan press that had far-reaching implications for the future of press freedom in the country. In 1961, a revived Utusan Melayu was entangled in a fight between its journalists and other workers, on one hand, and the ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno), on the other, over the important issue of press freedom.

The newspaper workers, under the leadership of its former chief editor Said Zahari, championed editorial independence while Umno insisted that the newspaper, which was highly influential within the Malay community should give full support to the party. A 93-day strike ensued which ended with Umno, given its majority shareholding power, taking over the newspaper.

The growth of the media industry in Malaysia was spurred by the New Economic Policy (NEP) following its implementation in 1970, and especially by the privatisation policy that was undertaken in the early 1980s by the Mahathir administration.

Consequently, a number of new titles of newspapers and magazines and new TV and radio stations made inroads into the media industry. Indeed, there was a quantitative growth in the industry.

Apart from government-run RTM’s TV1 and TV2 channels, Malaysians witnessed the birth of private TV station TV3 that started transmission on June 1, 1984, the first of its kind under the privatisation policy.

This was followed by 8TV, after it was revamped, which started broadcasting on Jan 8, 2004. ntv7 began transmission on April 7, 1998 and TV9 on April 22 last year.

Apart from these free-to-air-TV stations that come under the stable of conglomerate Media Prima, another major broadcasting player also appeared on the scene in the mid-1990s. Astro, a subscription-based direct broadcast satellite, or direct-to-home satellite, television and radio service began operation in 1996.

The government-run wire service, Bernama, also launched its own TV news channel in 1998 in an apparent attempt to provide news content for the growing broadcasting industry.

Over the years, as implied above, the media industry in Malaysia has witnessed a growing and troubling trend of media ownership concentration and consolidation, which was triggered by economic and, to some extent, political considerations.


Such a phenomenon prevails primarily because of the laws that govern the mainstream media, namely the Printing Presses and Publications Act for the press and the Communications and Multimedia Act for the broadcasting industry and the Internet, which invariably empower the ministers concerned to determine who can or cannot own and run the mainstream press and broadcasting stations.

This situation certainly has serious implications on press freedom and the media’s qualitative diversity because media ownership concentration tends to constrain the diversity of content and viewpoints in the mainstream newspapers and broadcasting stations, especially when most owners of these media organisations are associated with the ruling coalition or constitute their economic allies.

In other words, the parameters of freedom and space found in the mainstream media are directly or indirectly prescribed by the powers-that-be.

Such a media environment has also brought about a worrying culture of self-censorship within the journalistic fraternity. In this context, laws such as the Official Secrets Act, Sedition Act and the Internal Security Act also have a chilling effect on journalists.

It is, therefore, not surprising that many Malaysians have turned to the alternative and new media for new sources of information, news and views. This was most evident after the sacking of then deputy prime minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in 1998, which triggered the call for reformasi.

At the height of the movement, many people sought alternative publications such as Harakah, Detik, Tamadun and Aliran Monthly, as well as websites and news portals such as Malaysiakini.

Although the movement has petered out over the years and many of the reformasi-motivated websites have since died a natural death, the yearning for better media still exists among certain quarters of society because some sections of the mainstream media still suffer from a credibility gap.

This explains, in part, the recent and growing popularity of websites, especially blogs, a few of which provide incisive political analyses as well as a certain degree of investigative journalism that is absent in the mainstream media.

Blogging has become a household term now, what with the recent skirmishes between the state and the ruling party on one side and bloggers such as Jeff Ooi, Ahirudin Attan, Nathaniel Tan and Raja Petra Kamarudin (of the increasingly popular website Malaysia Today) on the other.

The vibrancy and growth of blogs and websites is indicative that something is amiss within the mainstream media, and of the status of media freedom in the country.

While it is true that there are blogs and websites that are problematic or even scandalous in nature, placing certain obstacles or issuing threats against particular Net users is not really a panacea to the ailments that have inflicted the mass media in general.

If anything, this does not augur well for the pronounced policy of transparency, accountability and good governance.

Source: Dr Mustafa K Anuar, TheSun, Friday, August 24, 2007


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