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AT: Pro-Kuala Lumpur media pay price over Anwar
By Kapal Berita

19/10/2000 1:21 pm Thu


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 Guang Ming.

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 society.''

(Inter Press Service)