Malaysiakini, known as an independent news website, chose to function online when print was subjected to media licensing regulations in Malaysia
When a door bolts, another one cracks open. Long time friends and fellow journalists from Malaysia, Premesh Chandran and Steven Gan, can discern the veracity of this notion better than many of us. It proved true for Malaysiakini, their award-winning subscription-based news website, now with reportedly 250,000 readers per day. In end 1999, frustrated with their Government’s longstanding clampdown on media freedom — both print and broadcast, the duo took advantage of a small window — the Government’s decision to keep the Internet free of control, to start Malaysiakini. In a heavily controlled media scene, Chandran and Gan, former colleagues at The Sun, “hoped to have some small impact.”
“The objective was to provide independent and plural news and views,” says Premesh Chandran. In India to talk about “Media for Change” at the recent Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival, Chandran constructs, in an email interview, the situation under which media houses generally operate in Malaysia. “Our print and electronic broadcast media is heavily controlled by the Government through strict media licensing regulations. Media is generally owned by the Government, by ruling political parties or their business allies. However, in the mid-1990s, the Government decided that there will not be licensing requirements for online media.” It was to create Multimedia Super Corridor, a part of the Government’s Vision 2020 agenda to make Malaysia a modern nation. Malaysiakini launched as Malaysia’s first politically independent media, in four languages — English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil — free of cost. “It was difficult to convince our readers to pay for news initially. In fact, when we launched subscription in 2002 for our English edition, only 1,000 out of 100,000 readers subscribed that year,” he recalls. The Chinese section opened subscription in 2011. Its Malay and Tamil versions are still free. Chandran says, “Over time and with political changes, more readers were willing to pay for news, not just to read it but to ensure Malaysia has a strong independent media. Today, Malaysiakini is the only profitable online media in the country, with income coming equally from advertising and subscription. It reaches about 250,000 readers per day, about 2.2 million unique visitors per month.” A lot of credit also goes to its breaking news, which also meant direct confrontation with their Government. “We have resisted government attacks and raids by police and built a sizeable organisation, with over 75 staff. Malaysiakini’s coverage has resulted in many cases of the government changing policies, creating royal commissions of inquiries, and shamed public officers prosecuted or retiring early. In 2008, after the ruling Government suffered a major electoral setback, the then Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi said that his biggest mistake was to underestimate the power of the Internet,” says Chandran. There has been little change in media laws though. “However, with the growing strength and reach of online media, even traditional media have had to improve in order to maintain their readership.” The key to survive, he notes, “is to provide quality independent news, making the traditional media less relevant. It is also important to work closely with social media so that the audience becomes your main multiplier.” Since 2004, Malaysiakini has been sharing its expertise with independent online media organisations across Asia through its platform, South East Asia Centre for E-Media (SEACEM). So far, it has helped organisations in about 15 countries including Pakistan, China, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Nepal. “SEACEM receives grants from various donors to carry out training to promote press freedom, human rights and democracy. Trainings can include strategic development, use of technology, video journalism, security and many other areas,” he says. At the Kolkata festival, Chandran touched upon these issues and took home “the India experiences”.