University of Nottingham Malaysia
Political upheaval in Malaysia after years of authoritarian rule led to high hopes of an extension to media freedom. A year on, the new government appears to be reluctant to carry out its promises.
In May 2018, a disparate coalition, Pakatan Harapan (PH), won a historic and unexpected general election over the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition which had governed Malaysia for more than six decades. The first few months following the victory saw much euphoria and the welcoming of a ‘New Malaysia’.
Almost a year on, much of that seems to have died down, with PH losing two state by-elections. For many, it has been a year of some election promises being kept but numerous others still needing to be fulfilled. Promises relating to media freedom and freedom of expression make up some of the more controversial ones. One of the first items on the new government’s agenda was to repeal a hastily created Anti-Fake News Law, passed by the BN administration just before the May elections. The aim had been to punish bearers of critical information provided by web-based news portals and social media. But the repeal has been delayed for at least a year, after being rejected by the Malaysian parliament’s upper house which is dominated by BN senators.
After a reported loss of MYR669m (approximately US$172m) in 2017, Media Prima, the biggest Malaysian media conglomerate, returned to the black at the end of 2018 with a net profit of MYR68.2m, but only because of a ‘a one-off gain in selling property’.1 Media Prima owns four free-to-air TV channels including TV3, Malaysia’s number one station by audience share, and three national news brands including the New Straits Times, Berita Harian, and Harian Metro.
Another conglomerate, Utusan Malaysia (Utusan), owned by the once-dominant political party, UMNO (United Malays National Organisation), is going through uncertain times. In December 2018, its executive chairman and UMNO politician, Abdul Aziz Sheikh Fadzir, resigned, after having been at the helm for just six months. The company then began a round of layoffs. But then Abdul Aziz returned, buying up more than 30% of the company’s shares. The uncertainty continues with the conglomerate’s fortunes evidently being linked to how well UMNO does in by-elections and how far it distances itself from former prime minister Najib Razak.2
The problems faced by Utusan are common to the press in Malaysia. Circulation for virtually all daily newspapers has been going down since even before the election. In August 2018, New Straits Times Press, the country’s oldest publisher, announced it was selling its Kuala Lumpur headquarters and its printing plant. The New Straits Times, like other pro-BN media companies, has been experiencing dwindling circulation. Soon after the general election, there appeared to be hope for reform. Groups and individuals from Malaysian civil society banded together to call for – and offer assistance towards – reforms, including media reform. For example, proposals to develop Malaysia’s state broadcaster, RTM (Radio Television Malaysia), into a genuine public broadcaster were submitted but there appears to be reluctance to adopt them.
Despite the talk, where the media is concerned, the government appears to be more keen on control and censorship than about developing a progressive policy. The sentencing of a Facebook user to ten years and ten months imprisonment for insulting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad seems to illustrate this.3
Aggregator sites and social media are also on the rise as providers of information – if not specifically news. One of the causes is that many Malaysians continue to be reluctant to pay for online news – among our respondents 16% say they are paying. To paraphrase the founder of the Malaysian Insight, Jahabar Sadiq, Malaysian millennials willingly pay for lattes but not for news4
– though it should be said that some news sites, like Malaysiakini, have built a significant base of subscribers (more than 24,000 by late 2018).5
Online and social media remain the predominant sources of news for our online sample of Malaysian news users. TV and print continue to play an important role for those not online. Smartphones are the main access point for digital news with access from computers and tablets falling over time.
In spite of the assurances of greater media freedom by the new government, and the impending launch of an industry-run and regulated Media Council, overall trust is similar to last year. 24-hour TV news channel Astro Awani leads in the area of brand trust taking a fresh, open, and even critical approach to discussing news and current affairs.
- www.theedgemarkets.com/article/media-prima-returns-black-fy18-gain-property-sale ↩
- www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2019/02/08/utusan-no-longer-under-umnos-direct-control/1721079 ↩
- www.scmp.com/news/asia/southeast-asia/article/2189352/malaysian-jailed-more-10-years-insulting-islam-social-media ↩
- www.mumbrella.asia/2018/02/malaysian-media-mogul-jahabar-sadiq-millennials-pay-for-lattes-so-why-not-news ↩
- https://events.wan-ifra.org/sites/default/files/field_ecm_file/7.3_malaysiakinis_digital_subscription_journey_sean_ho.pdf ↩