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AT: Pro-Kuala Lumpur media pay price over Anwar
By Kapal Berita
19/10/2000 1:21 pm Thu
Source: ASIA TIMES
Pro-Kuala Lumpur media pay price over Anwar
By Anil Netto
KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's venerable New Straits Times newspaper now has
new management and even sports a more colorful, breezier look. But
media analysts doubt if these will be enough to stem the declining
sales of the solidly pro-government daily.
The Times is not the only mainstream newspaper with falling sales in
Malaysia. Indeed, in the last two years, local media bosses have noted
a wane in the readership of nearly all of the country's major papers.
Some media analysts have interpreted the trend to mean that more
Malaysians are turning to the Internet or satellite television for
news. But others have insisted that it had more to do with how the
mainstream newspapers covered the ouster and subsequent arrest of
ex-deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim in late 1998.
As analyst Mustafa Anuar comments, ''The credibility of the mainstream
media has gone down.''
Many analysts note that these papers provided largely just the
''official'' version of events, and later even downplayed the trial of
Anwar when it became obvious that many Malaysians were not convinced
that the former official was guilty of the corruption and s###my that
he was accused of.
''I was no fan of Anwar but the media onslaught definitely turned me
over. I was outraged - this was not journalism,'' said writer Sabri
Zain, author of the book Face Off: A Reformasi Diary (1998-1999) in a
recent magazine interview. ''Worse still, the press were treating us as
though we were stupid. I had had enough.''
A study done recently the market research firm AC Nielsen seems to show
that many other Malaysians think similarly. According to AC Nielsen,
the readership of the New Straits Times readership has plunged 27
percent over the last two years, as did that of a Malay-language
newspaper, Utusan Malaysia. Another Malay daily, Berita Harian, had it
worse, with its readership dropping by 30 percent. A significant chunk
of readers has also turned away from the other major newspapers,
including those in Chinese and Tamil.
The only consolation for the mainstream media is the 5 percent rise
this year in readership of the top-selling English language daily, The
Star and the hefty 12 percent readership growth of the Chinese-language
But such good news is apparently not enough to quell the worries of the
other major papers and alarm bells have been ringing loudly in media
circles. Some analysts allow that the boycott of selected media that
was launched by the opposition months after Anwar's sacking may have
contributed to the decline in readership of the likes of the New
Straits Times and Utusan Malaysia. These two newspapers had been
singled out for the boycott, as was the pro-government television
station, TV3, which is privately owned.
But it did not help such papers at all when, in the run-up to the
general election in November, the mainstream media again angered many
critical Malaysians by trying to stoke fears of ethnic unrest should
the opposition do well.
As the mainstream media's lost credibility, sales of the opposition
newspaper bi-weekly Harakah soared from 65,000 to as much as 360,000
per issue. Harakah, published by the Islamic Party, and independent
Malay publications like Detik magazine and the weekly Eksklusif
newspaper, captured new readers with their independent coverage of the
Anwar saga and the reformasi movement that his ouster unleashed.
Harakah even expanded its English language section, luring readers away
from the "traditional" English language newspapers. Websites like Laman
Reformasi (reformasi website), Malaysiakini and Harakahdaily have since
also provided a more independent alternative for those tired of the
official version of events.
Such alternative media played a major role in enabling the opposition
to make deep inroads in last November's general election. These media
have also eaten into the profitability of most of the mainstream media,
which are largely controlled directly or indirectly by political
parties and those with close links to the ruling elite.
After the general election, the government ordered Harakah to slash its
frequency from twice a week, to twice a month. It also barred
Eksklusif, Detik and a new youth magazine, Al-Wasilah, from continuing
to publish. In addition, the Harakah editor was charged with sedition
for carrying an article which suggested that the government was
involved in a conspiracy to oust Anwar.
The government's actions did not go unnoticed. The international
Committee to Protect Journalists listed Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad
among its Top Ten "Enemies of the Press" for the second consecutive
year. The clampdown also made the opposition and independent Malaysians
more determined to develop the Internet as an alternative means of
reaching the public.
Activists are now lobbying for the repeal of the Printing Presses and
Publications Act, which requires publishers and printing firms to apply
for annual licences and encourages self-censorship.
Coalitions and networks of independent journalists are also being
formed. For the first time, the conservative largely pro-government
National Union of Journalists saw elections for key posts, as more
progressive journalists challenged the incumbents - but the challengers
were soundly beaten.
Currently, the number of independent journalists is still way too small
to make an impact. That does not mean that change is impossible, but as
Sabri pointed out: ''The change has to come from within society, not
from the profession. All journalists can do now is to help change that
(Inter Press Service)