Message from Keith
The last six weeks or so seemed particularly grim for what has already been a terrible year for the media in Asia.
First, on April 30, came the horrific news from Afghanistan that 10 journalists were killed on a single day, nine while responding to a suicide blast in the capital, Kabul, and the 10th shot and killed in a separate incident in Khost, near the Pakistan border.
Then came news from Malaysia of the first conviction under that country’s new “fake news” law, against a Yemeni-born Danish citizen for a YouTube video he posted criticising the police response time to a shooting in Kuala Lumpur.
And in Cambodia, May began with the sacking of the top editor of the country’s last independent newspaper, The Phnom Penh Post, followed by the resignation of several editors and reporters in protest. The newspaper had published a story about how the paper’s new Malaysian owner had previously carried out public relations work for Prime Minister Hun Sen. The Cambodian leader has been shutting critical media outlets and harassing political opponents ahead of elections due in July.
With the continuing suppression of journalists and independent media in Thailand, Myanmar and elsewhere, supporters of a free and independent media as a vital component of democracy had every reason to feel depressed.
Yet out of Malaysia on May 9 came one reason to cheer.
There, on May 9, the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition, led by nonagenarian former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, ousted the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, which has led the country under de facto one-party rule since independence in 1957. The defeated coalition was led by the United Malays National Organization or UMNO, whose leader and prime minister, Najib Razak, has been accused of corruption on an epic scale. Nearly US$700 million was discovered in Najib’s personal bank account, with the money believed funnelled from the country’s sovereign wealth fund, known as 1MBD. Najib has denied allegations of corruption, saying the money was a gift.
For the past 60 years, the hold on power by UMNO and Barisan came in part from their near-total control of the media. State-controlled newspapers and television stations became nothing more than slavish mouthpieces for the ruling coalition. And successive governments, but particularly Najib's, used the British colonial-era Sedition Act to stifle critical reporting.
But the digital era has seen the emergence of some new, brave, scrappy and independent websites like Malaysiakini, which bucked the trend and reported on corruption in the ruling party. Some, like The Malaysian Insider and print publications owned by the Edge Media Group, were forced to shut down. But not before news of massive graft allegations and the 1MBD scandal had permeated the public consciousness.
I’m lucky that my team and I will be leading a group of JMSC undergraduates to Kuala Lumpur this month where we will get a first-hand look at what might now be a changed media landscape. The stunning election result, and the repudiation of the old government, is a testament to the power of independent media and tough, fact-based reporting that holds power to account. It also shows how in the internet era, new outlets operating on a shoestring can break the monopoly of the state-controlled media and provide real news that can make a difference.
Expect a backlash. Other autocrats planning elections soon—like Hun Sen in Cambodia, or the generals ruling Thailand—may decide to crack down even harder on the media in their countries.
But for the moment, supporters of a free press should simply savour this one victory. After the pileup of stories about diminished revenues, vanishing audiences, declining public trust, and after all the continuous threats and the derogatory cries of “fake news,” we sure needed this one.
Let’s celebrate today. Tomorrow it’s back to the trenches.
Director of the JMSC
NOTE: This monthly bulletin will be taking a break for the summer, as the students all depart and many of the JMSC instructors head to various far-flung parts for research, writing, and time off. We’ll be back in September. Have a great summer, everyone, and see you when we begin the new semester.