Blocked Site’s Closure Underscores Malaysia's Press Freedom Crisis
On March 14, The Malaysian Insider abruptly closed its editorial operations less than a month after the state media regulator, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, blocked local access to its news site.
The Edge Media Group, owner of The Malaysian Insider, said in a statement that despite the site's "courageous news reporting" it "did not receive enough commercial support to keep it going." In a statement posted on The Malaysian Insider website, editor-in-chief Jahabar Sadiq confirmed the site was closed for commercial reasons.
The closure of the English language portal comes amid a government clampdown on independent media, particularly outlets that have critically covered the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) financial scandal that has engulfed Prime Minister Najib Razak's administration. In recent months, CPJ has documented how authorities have censored, harassed and threatened individual journalists and media outlets in retaliation for their critical coverage.
In an email interview, Sadiq spoke about the government pressure his now-shuttered site experienced and the broad deterioration in press freedom in Malaysia.
CPJ: Last month, The Malaysian Insider's website was blocked by the state's media regulator. What article did authorities cite to justify the censorship and why did they consider it sensitive?
Sadiq: Until today there is no official explanation by way of a letter to The Malaysian Insider as to the reasons for the block. All we have is a minister saying we were blocked for an article that was confusing the people of Malaysia and a foreign ministry statement saying that the article was a threat to national peace and harmony.
The news related to an unidentified panel member in the local anti-graft authority saying they had prima facie evidence to back criminal charges against the prime minister over a huge sum of money found in his private bank accounts. The attorney-general had earlier said there was insufficient evidence for a charge.[EDITOR'S NOTE: Najib has consistently denied any wrongdoing.]
CPJ: Before the commission's censorship order, did The Malaysian Insider face any official harassment, warnings or threats over its critical news coverage, including of the 1MDB scandal?
Sadiq: We faced investigations for another case last year, but not related to this. However, the Internet regulator issued a general warning to all news portals last July over news coverage, specifically the 1MDB scandal, and the need to avoid using "unverified" news from other sites. There has always been unofficial harassment and threats by supporters and activists linked to the government.
CPJ: How did the government's blockage of your news site impact your readership? Were readers able to work around the block or was your site, in effect, blacked out?
Sadiq: Our news site saw traffic decline up to 30 percent after the block. Most readers were able to work around the block and traffic remained ahead of other news portals, but eventually it affected our earnings more as advertisers pulled out. In a sense, that loss of revenue led to a permanent blackout.
CPJ: How did the censorship impact your news site's financial situation? Do you think Najib's government has a deliberate policy of using economic means to bring down independent online media?
Sadiq: The block led to the permanent blackout as revenue plunged. Only one advertiser insisted on putting advertisements despite the block and, ironically, it was a government agency. I have no proof that there is a deliberate policy to use economic means, but advertising agencies have told us that government-linked companies have been discouraged from advertising with us. In our time, only one bank, CIMB, which is owned by the state sovereign wealth fund Khazanah [Nasional Berhad,] has consistently advertised with us. The others did not.
CPJ: What role, if any, did government pressure play in the final decision to close The Malaysian Insider?
Sadiq: As far as I know, there is no government pressure in the decision to close down The Malaysian Insider. The shareholders had indicated from January that they wanted to sell the business and received several inquiries. But the continued block was a factor that affected the sale price of the news portal and perhaps pushed the decision [by the Edge Media Group] to shut it down rather than sell at a lower price.
CPJ: How has Malaysia's independent online media's reporting on the 1MDB scandal differed from the state-influenced mainstream media's coverage?
Sadiq: Well, it is as clear as night and day between both mainly. Several mainstream print media have tried to be as comprehensive as the online media's wall-to-wall coverage, but the threat of losing their license has curbed them. Most of them have been defending the government in the 1MDB scandal, while the online media has reported the issues and exposés reported by foreign media and whistleblower websites.
CPJ: The Malaysian attorney general has proposed intensifying penalties, including possible life in prison and judicial caning, for violations of the Official Secrets Act. What impact would such revisions, if implemented, have on journalists, whistleblowers and press freedom in general?
Sadiq: The proposals, if true, are chilling. No one would want to work as journalists or if they did, they would just censor themselves rather than run the risk of jail or caning for reporting something remotely seen as a secret. There are whistleblower laws but this seems to contradict the laws that seek to keep the government transparent and accountable. Such revisions, if passed, will just mean the death of professional journalism in Malaysia, and what a sad day that would be.
CPJ: What is your broad assessment of the press freedom situation in Malaysia? Is there still a future for independent journalism, or is the government effectively moving to outlaw its existence?
Sadiq: I have always maintained that there is press freedom in Malaysia and our existence was proof of it. But I guess I am wrong now--we don't exist. There is a future, but it is under severe attack if people shy away from funding it or think that it is someone else's problem to fund and run it. The government does not have to do much except ensure that there is enough sycophantic media to lavish praise at it while market forces and bureaucracy stops us from doing our job.
Today, news sites can only exist and do well if they don't actually cover the real news of governance and scandals that plague Malaysia. The authorities would be happier if we covered entertainment, gossip and travel shows. Anything else threatens their well-being and, in turn, the media's well-being.
Reprinted from the Committee to Protect Journalists website, CPJ Senior Southeast Asia Representative Shawn W. Crispin is based Bangkok in where he has worked as a journalist and editor for more than 15 years.