Online media, whose share of the market is growing extremely fast, provide a platform for uncensored information and debate in Asia where the more conventional media sectors are often highly regulated. Malaysiakini.com -- Malaysia’s leading news website -- is a case in point. The site’s CEO, Premesh Chandran, has been in Bonn for Deutsche Welle’s Global Media Forum.
Premesh Chandran, co-founder and CEO of Malaysiakini.com
With between 100,000 and 200,000 users a day, Malaysiakini is Malaysia’s most widely-used independent news website. More often than not, it is simply the fastest reliable news source in the country.
CEO Premesh Chandran recalls March 8 2008 -- election night: “As the results were coming out in the evening, because the results favoured the opposition, all the government media, the TV as well as the online versions, did not carry the news of who had won in various states. Malaysiakini was the only media organization with reporters on the ground, actually publishing that the states of Penang, of Selangor had fallen to the opposition.”
“It was only after the government made an official announcement at about midnight that the traditional media started reporting the actual results.”
Born out of turbulence
Malaysiakini, which offers content in the country’s four major languages -- English, Bahasa Malaysia, Chinese and Tamil -- was started in 1999, in politically turbulent times for Malaysia.
“What happened is that in 1998 the Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was sacked from office, arrested and jailed. We had this bit of a ‘Reformasi’ upheaval -- people demanding justice,” Premesh Chandran explains.
“At the time, the Internet was still not quite there yet. But a lot of people demanded independent news, which was not available in the traditional government-controlled media.”
Besides serving as a fast and independent news source, Malaysiakini also offers a space for debate by publishing user responses. It also links to blogs; promoting responsible bloggers who follow certain journalistic standards.
Platform for political debate
The Internet has of late become a very important platform for political debate across Southeast Asia, in countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, says Premesh Chandran.
“Although it is still a minority reading the internet, it’s a very vocal minority. And because you have the speed of discussion, what happens is that the mainstream media, the newspapers and TV, tend to follow the debate after it happens on the Internet.”
“So there’s a small and very fast-happening debate and discussion on the Internet, followed by slower, more plural discussion in print and on TV.”
Particular legal framework
But in many ways Malaysiakini’s position is unique as compared to websites in other countries. This has to do with Malaysia’s particular legal framework:
“The laws in the country are such that the print media and the broadcast media are regulated and licensed by the government, and most often owned by the political parties in government. So they generally toe the government line. The Internet, on the other hand, is actually exempt from licensing. And the government actually promised not to censor the internet in order to attract foreign investment.”
At the moment, Malaysiakini can afford to charge its users a subscription fee of 40 US dollars per year, which makes it commercially viable. But the challenge will be how to “reinvent” itself once other media in the country acquire more freedom.
Premesh Chandran believes that under “normal” circumstances, a news website cannot earn enough money, and that all modern media organisations have to diversify, to go “multimedia” as such. That is why Malaysiakini is now thinking about opening a radio station.