KUALA LUMPUR — When thousands of protesters calling for electoral reform took to the streets here July 9, Malaysiakini, one of Malaysia’s most popular news Web sites, received 5.2 million hits, making the day one of the site’s busiest since it was established in 1999.
An increasing tendency to seek news online is hardly unique to Malaysia. But here, it is not just technology driving readers to news Web sites. It is also that — by design, and in contrast to countries like China, with its infamous Great Firewall — in Malaysia the Internet operates outside the stringent laws that regulate the traditional media.
So while newspapers, radio and television can operate only with a government license and books and films must be approved by censors, who insist that controls are necessary to avoid social problems like inflaming religious sensitivities in this predominantly Muslim country, the Internet has remained largely free of government interference.
But now that disparity — between media restrictions so stringent that Reporters Without Borders ranked Malaysia a low 141 out of 178 on its 2010 Press Freedom Index, and a relatively unfettered Internet that allows citizens to easily circumvent those restrictions — has called into question whether the censorship laws are worth upholding in the digital age.
Last month, Prime Minister Najib Razak called for a re-examination. “I have decided the old ways of censorship needs to be studied,” he said. “It is no longer effective and should be reviewed.”
His announcement followed the blacking out of parts of an article in the print edition of the British newsmagazine The Economist about the July protests and a court ruling upholding a ban on a book of cartoons critical of the government. Meanwhile, all the material remained available online.
Mr. Najib acknowledged that censoring The Economist had brought more harm than good. “The very act of censoring it made a bigger story than the article itself,” The Star newspaper quoted him as saying.
The Internet exception stems in part from a pledge by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad in 1996, when he established the Multimedia Super Corridor. The aim of this government-designated zone near the capital was to help catapult Malaysia into the ranks of advanced nations by attracting foreign investment with inducements like tax incentives and high-speed Internet access.
But one, perhaps unanticipated, result was to clear the way for the rise of local news Web sites, many of which published critical stories and commentary rarely seen in the mainstream news media. Where once Malaysians eager for independent news coverage might have looked to foreign newspapers, now they could simply log on to homegrown sites.
“Web sites now provide Malaysian content by Malaysians for Malaysians for those who have access to the Internet,” said Jahabar Sadiq, editor of The Malaysian Insider, a news Web site established in 2008.
Such sites have made it increasingly difficult for the government to control the narrative in this country, where one party has dominated national politics since independence from Britain more than 50 years ago. And they are intensifying the pressure on politicians to be more accountable.
“They have lost the monopoly on truth,” said Steven Gan, editor in chief of Malaysiakini. “For a long time, the government had complete control over the news agenda through the control of the mainstream media. That is gone. They can continue to tell the mainstream media what to report, but that doesn’t stop Malaysians from knowing that there’s another version of the truth out there, and they get it from the Internet.”
The number of Internet users in Malaysia, which has a population of 28 million, has grown from 3.7 million in 2000 to 16.1 million last year, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit. Numerous Web sites offering news and analyses have sprung up in recent years; the country is home to a vibrant community of bloggers; and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook are immensely popular.
Media freedom advocates have long complained that the laws governing newspapers and televisions stations have stifled political debate and fostered a culture of self-censorship among mainstream journalists. The print media are regulated by the Printing Presses and Publications Act, which requires most newspapers to renew their licenses annually. But the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act — which governs cyberspace — contains no such requirement.
“I think they’ve managed to challenge the authoritative ways in which news is defined and formed in Malaysia,” Masjaliza Hamzah, executive officer of the Kuala Lumpur-based Center for Independent Journalism, said of the local news Web sites. She added that the sites often cover issues like human rights, which does not “get the coverage that it deserves” in the print media.
After Mr. Najib announced the need to review the media laws, the home affairs minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said that the government would review the Printing Presses and Publications Act. However, he also said that “in a multiracial and multireligious society, filtering must be done, as absolute freedom can cause chaos,” according to a report by The Malaysian Insider.
Analysts say that the online media have changed the political discourse in Malaysia by forcing politicians to respond to events more quickly and by holding them more accountable. The Internet has been credited with playing an influential role in the 2008 election, when the governing coalition lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time.
“This is really creating a lot more pressure,” said Bridget Welsh, an associate professor at Singapore Management University who specializes in Malaysian politics.
“It doesn’t allow politicians the same luxury as in the past to say different things to different audiences,” she said, adding that that had traditionally been a practice.
“You are also starting to see slowly a demand for more effective policies,” she said.
Ms. Welsh said that many older members of the governing party feared the Internet because “they are used to telling everybody what to do, not really interacting.”
“Unlike in China,” she said, “where the Chinese government has been able to control it from the onset, in the case of Malaysia the government has always been on the back foot.”
Ms. Welsh said that the online media were contributing to a drop in readership of mainstream newspapers, which are facing increasing commercial pressure to include alternative voices, despite the government regulations. “There are restrictions, and I think that’s reducing their competitiveness,” she said.
While they may not be subject to the same laws as the traditional media, Web sites like Malaysiakini have faced other obstacles, and media freedom advocates like Ms. Masjaliza remain concerned that “vague” clauses in the Multimedia Act and other laws like the Sedition Act could be used to control the online media. Bloggers have already been investigated under the Sedition Act.
During the July 9 protest, Malaysiakini came under cyberattack but managed to stay operational thanks to the skills its technicians had gleaned from a similar attack during a state election in April, Mr. Gan said. He suspected that both attacks were the work of people “close to the authorities.”
He said that in 2003, the police took 19 computers from Malaysiakini’s office after it published a reader’s letter likening the youth arm of the governing party, the United Malays National Organization, to the Ku Klux Klan. The Web site was not charged with any offense, but its computers were not returned until two years later. Some of its reporters have been refused entry to news conferences held by government ministers and the police.
In 2009, he said, Malaysiakini rejected a request by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission that it take down a video of a protest showing a cow’s head being thrown at a building. Ethnic and religious tensions often run high in Malaysia, and Mr. Gan said the commission had told him that the site was being investigated for causing offense to Hindus, who consider the cow sacred.
Mr. Gan said the online community would vehemently oppose any attempts at censorship.
“I think the government would want to control a Web site like Malaysiakini,” he said, “but the moment they try to do that, we will fight it.”