Population 32m
Internet penetration 78%

Zaharom Nain
Centre for the Study of Communications and Culture, University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus

After decades of authoritarian rule by one coalition, the unexpected General Election outcome of 9 May has thrown up numerous possibilities – many positive – for the media environment in Malaysia.

The past year has seen major media organisations, mainly print and broadcasting, suffering substantial losses. Media Prima, Malaysia’s biggest media conglomerate, reported a loss in 2017 — MYR669 million (approximately US $172m).1

Media Prima owns all four of the free-to-air commercial television stations in Malaysia and two national dailies, the English-language New Straits Times and the Malay language Berita Harian. Circulations of these once-popular newspapers have continued to fall, for two main reasons.

The first is politics. They were openly aligned and strongly supportive of the former Prime Minister, Najib Razak, at a time when he was embroiled in one major financial scandal after another. This made Media Prima’s media properties increasingly unpopular among Malaysians. Just a little over a week after the BN regime lost the elections, Media Prima’s group chairman resigned, following in the footsteps of directors from other media companies.

The second cause of newspaper woe is digital. The rising popularity and increasing availability of digital online news portals and social media have seen the migration of traditional audiences to the web. The number of people using online news sources increased by 3 points, and those using social media for news increased by 5. In contrast those relying on print fell by 4.

Smartphones are now the most popular way for people to access digital news.Indeed, while it has not been clearly established yet, it appears that social media played a key role in putting across the messages of the then PH opposition during the short election campaign period. There still appears a reluctance on the part of consumers to pay for online news, a problem facing organisations like the news portal Malaysiakini and The Malaysian Insight, a site which suddenly suspended operations but plans to start a subscription service.

Trust remains an important issue. The recently defeated Barisan Nasional government was affected by scandals and alleged cover-ups and the media’s ability to report these issues fairly is also in question. Less than a third (30%) of those polled have trust in news overall.

There appears to be greater trust in what are perceived as international media as opposed to local, with Yahoo! News being the most trusted brand. This has much to do with the structures and patterns of media ownership and control. There are some brands that buck this trend. Malaysiakini (44% reach) has maintained its reputation for providing independent news and continues to retain the trust of many Malaysians, especially those tired of propaganda.

Fake news as an issue for the media shifted very quickly, over just a couple of months, from being the subject of a comment by Najib to becoming the subject of an Act of Parliament. On 2 April the Anti-Fake News Law (AFNL) was passed just in time for the May general election. The law was hastily drawn up with no feedback from opposition parties, media professionals, academics, or civil society. It was rushed through parliament with only five opposition MPs being allowed to voice their opinions. It consists of a vague, general definition of what constitutes fake news and yet allows for tough penalties — a maximum jail term of six years and a fine of MYR500,000 (approximately US $128,000).

No one was under any illusions — not even the government — that the reason for the law was essentially political. As media academic Gayathry Venkiteswaran has put it:

For most observers, the obvious reason behind this rushed law is to keep the scandalous 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) wealth fund and other financial misappropriations out of the electorate’s focus. This is a punitive law that fails to provide any clarity on the meaning or parameters of ‘fake news’, but criminalises a wide array of speech online and offline.2

But all this seems to have changed since 9 May. The new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government has promised to review, if not remove, the AFNL, together with other coercive laws. It has already established high-level committees headed by respected individuals to spearhead much-needed reforms. It may be early days yet, but the actions of the new administration do point towards a more open environment and a more vocal media.

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Less than a third of our Malaysian sample agree that they trust the news (30%) most of the time — one of the lowest scores in our survey. This relates to perceptions that independence is often compromised by powerful business or political interests. Although many get their news via social media, there is even more scepticism about the news that is found there (21%).