Three years of the pandemic, lockdowns, and political and economic uncertainty have deepened the worries of the already-struggling Malaysian print media. On the other hand, social media apps such as TikTok became politically central to the recent election campaign, raising concerns for the new government.
There was the initial uncertainty and fear of a hung parliament after the 15th General Elections (GE15) in November 2022 when no one party or coalition was able to form the new government. Nonetheless, a quickly cobbled-together 'unity government' was formed, based on the advice and with the consent of Malaysia’s constitutional monarch, and led by the charismatic Anwar Ibrahim.
The first few months of the Unity government have seen some worrying – and other, more positive – developments for the media. On the plus side, talks about setting up an independent, self-regulated Media Council were revived by the new Communications and Digital Minister, after having been taken off the agenda by the two previous, short-lived regimes. There remains the question of the funding of the Council which, it is envisioned, will come through taxation. It is anticipated that repeal of long-standing oppressive media laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA) will follow.
On the minus side, religious and racial hate speech on social media has been on the rise, especially during and immediately after the GE15 campaign period. After the election, TikTok removed 1,126 videos deemed ‘provocative and extreme’ after a meeting with the Communications and Digital Ministry officials.1 The government says it is looking at allegations that political parties also paid content creators to disseminate their narratives on TikTok. The app has been growing rapidly in the last few years, according to our Digital News Report survey, with four in ten (42%) using it for any purpose and around a quarter (24%) for news – up 9 percentage points on last year.
Apart from official acts of censorship, the new government and the numerous media organisations do not appear to have constructive ideas to counter such hate speech or to come up with a strategy providing a different, inclusive narrative. Indeed, when there was a belated backlash against a 2021 film, Mentega Terbang (a play on the word 'butterfly') that was only streamed online and not played in Malaysian cinemas, the ministry sided with the conservatives, reportedly saying that they ‘would take action against the controversial film’, which was officially deemed as going ‘against Islamic teachings’.2
What is evident over the past year is that the media industry, which is still recovering from the pandemic, faces a number of key challenges. First, financial problems continue to affect print publications with the fallout from the closure of Malaysia’s biggest national-language newspaper, Utusan Malaysia (UM), in October 2019 still being felt; 800 workers were laid off then and many took UM to court over compensation benefits. The paper was relaunched nine months later under new ownership and is still finding its way in a competitive market. 3
Second, trust issues still prevail, with social media seemingly being more immediate, exciting, and easily digested by many Malaysians, especially during the election campaign of November 2022.4
Third, we are seeing more political influence being exercised over a number of online news organisations. Free Malaysia Today and The Vibes are two companies run by individuals closely aligned with senior political party leaders. Since GE15, The Vibes has been at the forefront in providing positive news of Anwar Ibrahim’s Unity government.
Both the founders of the still-independent Malaysiakini news portal, Steven Gan and Premesh Chandran, left the organisation this past year, Gan retiring and Chandran moving to an international funding agency. Whether the popular Malaysiakini will change direction remains to be seen, although Gan has openly stated that safeguards are already in place to ensure Malaysiakini remains independent both financially and politically.
Astro Awani, which has second highest reach in both the offline and online news sources list, continues to be innovative and quite critical in a broadcast environment that appears to be on a downward trajectory as a source for news, certainly since 2021. Looking ahead, Awani has been designing new programmes for Malaysia’s youth, presented by talent drawn from a new generation.
All in, the past year has been very much a year of consolidation for the main news media brands while they wait to see how media policy develops. On the one hand Anwar Ibrahim’s reformist party talks about letting an independent media self-regulate, but on the other, it conforms to the dictates of the more conservative elements in the coalition when it comes to questions of censorship and freedom of expression.
University of Nottingham in Malaysia
Weekly use of print newspapers has more than halved since 2017, but television news is also becoming less important. Social media is a convenient alternative with Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, and now TikTok being key platforms for accessing news.
Pay for online news
Trust in news overall
Trust in news I use
News trust overall (40%) is up by 4pp on last year, along with the trust levels of most individual brands – perhaps reflecting the optimism felt with a new government promising some reforms. National-language and vernacular newspapers have long been recognised as often being politically owned and aligned, affecting trust. This process is now affecting some digital-born outlets too.
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1 ‘Tik Tok Took Down 1,126 Provocative Videos After GE15, says Fahmi’, TheStar online. 7 Dec. 2022. https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2022/12/07/tiktok-took-down-1126-provocative-videos-after-ge15-says-fahmi
3 Please note that we did not ask survey respondents about the print version of Utusan Malaysia (UM) in our 2023 survey due to an oversight. As a result the brand is not represented as might be expected in the offline reach section.
4 Centre for Independent Journalism Malaysia, ‘Social Media Monitoring of Malaysia’s 15th General Elections’, unpublished project report in partnership with the University of Nottingham Malaysia, Universiti Sains Malaysia and Universiti Malaysia Sabah, 2023, 11–32.