|With all major media outlets owned or controlled by Prime Minister Mahathir
Mohamad's ruling coalition, it was relatively easy for him to manage the
flow of mainstream domestic news coverage when he launched a campaign in
September to oust his deputy prime minister turned political reformer and
rival, Anwar Ibrahim. The forced resignations in July of three pro-Anwar
editors -- two from major national newspapers and one from a television station
-- signaled the beginning of the process leading to Anwar's arrest and trial
on sexual misconduct charges.
But Mahathir had not reckoned with the depth of public sentiment against
his regime and in favor of "reformasi," the catch-all slogan for political
change that started in neighboring Indonesia and soon spread to Malaysia.
Almost overnight, Internet sites sprouted to variously spread news and
information about the Anwar case and coordinate the largest anti-government
demonstrations in 30 years.
In Kuala Lumpur, many journalists walked off the job at mainstream newspapers
rather than face the kind of mandatory self-censorship that prevailed after
Anwar's arrest. Sales of major newspapers reportedly declined following the
arrest, and there were informal reader boycotts to protest perceived
pro-government coverage of the case, especially in English and Malay-language
papers. In one particularly telling anecdote, a senior editor at
the New Straits Times, the leading English-language daily newspaper,
told CPJ that even her family was bitterly divided by the press coverage
of Anwar. "My own father won't read my paper," she said, "because he is angry
about our [pro-Mahathir] coverage."
As a result of the pro-government bias in the mainstream, the readership
of opposition newspapers skyrocketed. The circulation of
Harakah, the official publication of a small opposition Islamic
political party, grew from 60,000 before Anwar's arrest to almost 300,000
in just weeks when the paper's editors began devoting major coverage to Anwar
and the reform movement. As a result, Malaysia's ubiquitous Special Branch
intelligence police summoned the editor for questioning and tried to force
the paper to sell copies only to party members.
In Malaysia's cautious multiracial political environment, one of the government's
chief preoccupations is controlling the reading and viewing habits of the
ethnic Malay majority, while leaving the minority Chinese and Indian populations
comparatively less constrained. Thus Chinese-language newspapers are freer
to report on anti-government viewpoints, and those papers also saw their
circulation climb during the crisis.
In a country long hostile to the foreign news media, there were a number
of troubling incidents. British television news crews were blocked for several
hours from transmitting footage of pro-Anwar demonstrations by satellite
in September, and the government threatened to censor Australian television
news reports from the annual meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation
forum held in Kuala Lumpur this year.