After the collapse of a reformist government in February 2020, renewed political instability and a national state of emergency, ostensibly as a result of COVID-19, have reversed hopes for improvement in media freedom in Malaysia.
For a brief period of 22 months – from May 2018 until February 2020 – the Malaysian media environment was one that held out hope, despite the technological and economic pressures, especially on the print media. A new coalition government, Pakatan Harapan (PH), was in power for the first time in the 61-year history of Malaysia’s general elections. PH promised reform in many areas, including the media, where it repealed a controversial Anti-Fake News Act and set the wheels in motion for an independent national Media Council. But due to its inexperience and external resistance, many of these hopes remained unfulfilled when the coalition suddenly collapsed.
Citing the COVID-19 pandemic, the hastily assembled Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition government initially suspended parliament, locked down the country, and convinced the Malaysian King to declare a national emergency, beginning 12 January until 1 August 2021.
The emergency gives PN exceptional powers over the media. It already has an arsenal of draconian legislation at its disposal, the main ones being the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA) and the Sedition Act 1948. These powers allowed PN to issue an anti-fake news emergency ordinance on 12 March this year ‘that effectively bans any information about the Coronavirus pandemic or current state of emergency that is not to its liking … The publication of such information with “intent to cause, or which is likely to cause fear or alarm to the public, or any section of the public” is punishable by three years in prison and a fine of 300,000 ringgits (€20,000).’1
Journalists and other media professionals face renewed intimidation after 22 months of relative freedom. Two internationally reported incidents were the July 2020 police investigation of an Al-Jazeera documentary on the arrest of undocumented migrant labourers and the questioning of a South China Morning Post (SCMP) journalist who had reported on migrant arrests.2
More recently, graphic artist Fahmi Reza and political cartoonist Zunar were detained and investigated by the police under the Sedition Act, the Penal Code, and the CMA. Fahmi’s ‘crime’ was satirising the Malaysian Queen, while Zunar’s was for ‘mischief and abuse of the internet over a caricature’ of the Chief Minister of the state of Kedah.3
In February this year, the country’s most popular independent online newspaper, Malaysiakini, was found guilty of contempt by Malaysia’s highest court, for posting five critical readers’ comments about the Lord President and the judiciary. The portal was fined a whopping MYR500,000 but, more tellingly, it took Malaysiakini only six hours to raise the sum from public donations. Now Malaysiakini appears to be besieged again, together with local Chinese-language portal, China Press. In April, both were summoned by the Home Ministry over ‘unfavourable’ – albeit accurate – reports about a careless statement on rape made by the Deputy Inspector General of Police.
Structurally, television remains a key source of news for many of the older generation who are not internet-savvy. More creative and critical formats, such as Awani’s Consider This current affairs talk show, have drawn in a more urban, questioning audience.
Political actors have again stepped in to own and control the Malaysian media environment in anticipation of an early general election in 2022. A new online news portal, The Vibes (thevibes.com) was launched in September 2020, said to be backed by opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim. Most online portals still provide free access, although some, like The Malaysian Insight (TMI),have followed the path set by Malaysiakiniof adopting a subscription-based model.
The biggest Malaysian media conglomerate, Media Prima, has also come under the spotlight with recent share acquisitions by former BN second finance minister, Johari Abdul Ghani. Two years ago, Media Prima was bleeding financially for economic and technological reasons. But the past year or so has seen a revival of its fortunes due to the fresh injection of funds by prominent Malaysian tycoon, Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary.4
These manoeuvres point to a familiar pattern close to general elections where the dominant political parties consolidate their control over the media. It has also been reported that online media are being targeted this time around.
University of Nottingham in Malaysia
Print has continued its decline as a source of news. Increasing use of smartphones to get news has coincided with the increasing popularity of online news media. Television news has become more attractive partly due to the various lockdowns forcing many to stay at home.
Pay for online news
Share news via social, messaging or email
Trust in news overall
Trust in news I use
Trust in news in search
Trust in news on social media
Overall trust in the various media has increased considerably as compared to the past two years. The pandemic and lockdowns have resulted in greater dependence on the main news sources for information on the threats and challenges of the virus. Astro Awani, a 24-hour news channel with innovative, often critical, news and current affairs programmes, still leads in the area of brand trust.
2 Bangkok Post, July 2020. https://www.bangkokpost.com/world/1947336/malaysia-probes-al-jazeera-documentary-about-migrant-arrests
4 Media Prima’s diverse media empire includes all four of Malaysia’s free-to-air television stations, the New Straits Times press, popular radio stations Fly FM and HotFM, and leading outdoor advertising company, Big Tree.