Q&A with Co-Founder of Malaysiakini – Malaysia’s Top Independent News Site
January 12, 2011
Despite being a country with one of the fastest growing rates of social media users, Malaysia’s independent media still struggle with strict government control of news content. At the same time, Premesh Chandran, co-founder of Malaysiakini, has grown his independent news site into Malaysia’s leading online media outlet. Malaysiakini serves as a voice for alternative and diverse public opinion and journalism in Malaysia. In Asia recently spoke to Chandran in San Francisco while he was here meeting with Silicon Valley’s leading online entrepreneurs and media outlets as The Asia Foundation’s Chang-Lin Tien Visiting Fellow.
Q: What was the media landscape like when you launched Malaysiakini in 1999?
Traditional print and broadcast outlets have always been tightly regulated through laws in Malaysia. You need a license to start a newspaper, and generally, they are only given to someone who is linked to the government. Most papers and broadcast outlets are owned by political parties in power. That was how it was in 1999, and that is how it is now.
Q: So, in this environment, how did you launch a news site known for its critical “exposés” of political figures and elites?
In the mid-1990s, as the Malaysian government was exploring ways to attract foreign companies into the IT sector, it sent a high-level delegation to California’s Silicon Valley to get support from the leading IT companies. The companies agreed, but only on the condition that Malaysia guarantees a free and open Internet space. Of course, the government agreed, and in 1998, passed a law protecting the Internet from censorship. This essentially split the media environment in two: on the one side, we now have a very strict traditional media and on the other, a very open Internet.
Q: Did you find that the public was interested in this more open, independent news style?
Mindsets really began to change in Malaysia in 1998 when then Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was sacked, many people thought unfairly so. This created a reform movement, with lots of people using the Internet to counter the highly censored mainstream media. In large part, we launched Malaysiakini in this heated environment when people were seeking more truthful coverage of this event.
At the same time, in Malaysia we’ve never really had independent media, so people don’t really understand what independent media is. Often the people who support independent media are the silent majority, and the most vocal voices either belong to the government camp or the opposition. However, because of the vacuum left behind from such a controlled traditional media, online news is indeed taking off fast in Malaysia. And now, we have one of the world’s highest growth rates on Facebook and Twitter.
Q: How do you think a shift in political leadership in Malaysia’s general elections this year will change the media landscape?
We are definitely watching to see what’s going to happen in the elections this year. There has been much debate about this under the current government, but it seems they realize that unless the country moves forward in terms of its media space, the country is not going to move forward economically or develop a more open and democratic political system, which will be necessary in order to deal with the pressures of global competition. If there is a big change in government you could see us backtrack to a more censored media environment. That being said, going forward, if there is a change in government at the federal level that does open up the media space, we would also want to be on print, TV, and radio. We don’t see ourselves as politically partisan – our duty is to the people, not to the political parties. Malaysiakini makes a strong point to put forward views not represented in mainstream media. That has obviously included many views from opposition parties and civil society, which is why we are sometimes labeled the voice of opposition.
Q: What are your major challenges now?
Recruiting staff is very difficult when you are doing what is seen as controversial news. Nobody in the mainstream wanted to join when we first started. In Malaysia, if you join a nonprofit or a start up, you are really putting your whole life in jeopardy. If you are a little bit older, and you have kids to feed, you won’t do it. If you are a little bit younger, your parents will tell you are mad. And, why would you become a journalist in an environment where there is no freedom? A lot of people are passionate about democracy, but most people are focused on making a living. Most of our staff members share the passion to contribute to change. The truth in Malaysia is here, but crossing the political line to get that truth is serious business.
Finding the right business model is also difficult. Considering the nature of our content, most advertisers obviously stay away from us. So, in 2002, we started a subscription system but only 1 percent of our readers joined. We’ve slowly grown our subscription rate, and by 2004 we broke even, with 60 percent of our income coming from subscriptions, and 40 percent from grants. Since 2008 we have broken even purely on advertising and subscription revenue. Moving forward in a changing media landscape that is focused on sharing content will be a challenge.
Q: And, Malaysiakini launched a citizen journalist training program in 2008. How is that going?
So far, we’ve trained over 200 citizens in basic journalism, with a heavy emphasis on video. They’ve produced over 1,000 news videos. The whole idea of the program is to empower people on the ground to tell stories of events around them, and bring attention to what’s happening then and there. This is very important in Malaysia – without local newspapers or radio stations we have a total lack of local media coverage and therefore, people can’t access the truth.
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