After 22 years of autocratci leadership, Asia's longest serving ruler, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, stepped down from his post in October, leaving behind a legacy of rapid economic growth. He also left strict controls on the press enforced through virtual one-party rule, crony ownership of most media outlets, and a pervasive climate of self-censorship.
His hand-picked successor, Abdullah Badawi, appeared to lack either the stature inside the dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO) or the inclination to relax the tough controls on the media imposed by Mahathir. Badawi served as home minister for many years under Mahathir and was the official in charge of enforcing the country's press laws. Within his first few weeks in office, he began to show his stripes when the editor of a major state-controlled newspaper was sacked in what was likely a politically motivated dispute.
Abdullah Ahmad, editor of the UMNO-owned New Straits Times newspaper group, had written an article criticizing the harsh form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia and calling for reform of the Saudi monarchy. After Saudi Arabia formally protested the article, the management committee of the newspaper group, which is chaired by the prime minister, used the article as a pretext for firing the editor. However, most observers believe that the editor, a Mahathir appointee, was let go because he had criticized Badawi publicly and had questioned his staying power as prime minister.
The incident underscored the tight relationship between the government and the media. Under Malaysia's complex and sometimes tense racial balancing act--power is essentially divided among the majority Malay population, an economically powerful Chinese minority, and a smaller ethnic Indian minority--all daily newspapers are owned by UMNO; its partner, the Malaysian Chinese Association; or businessmen allied with the government. The editors of major media outlets are political appointees and serve at the pleasure of the nation's rulers. Changes in editorial management are often signs of internal political conflict.
Journalists are kept in line through a combination of management pressure and threats of prosecution under the tough Internal Security Act. Few mainstream journalists ever step out of line.
In January, what is arguably Malaysia's only independent news organization, the Internet newspaper Malaysiakini.com, had it offices raided, computers confiscated, and staff interrogated by police acting on a complaint from the youth wing of UMNO, which was angered by a letter published in Malaysiakini.com complaining about the official pro-Malay racial preferences in the country. Soon, businesses fearful of government reprisals pulled their advertising and the landlord threatened to evict the company from its offices. An international outcry accompanied the raid, which was widely seen as an act of harassment. By year's end, the Attorney General's Office had yet to file formal charges against Malaysiakini.com or the publication's editor, Steven Gan, a 1991 CPJ International Press Freedom Award recipient.
"We hope they are going to let it go," said Premesh Chandran, the chief executive officer of Malaysiakini.com, "But we have no guarantees." Fortunately, Chandran said, advertising revenue has rebounded, the landlord lost his eviction case in court, and news-hungry Malaysians still subscribe to the rapidly growing site in record numbers.
The Internet has been the one bright spot in the otherwise dreary landscape of curtailed expression in Malaysia. Mahathir long pursued the goal of making Malaysia an information technology research and development center and, as a result, allowed the Internet to flourish uncensored. So far that remains the case, although conservative elements in the ruling party have called for greater restrictions on the Internet.
The openness exists only in cyberspace, however. Malaysiakini.com applied for permission to publish a daily newspaper in late 2002 but had received no answer to its application by year's end. Similarly, a long-standing campaign by some loosely affiliated mainstream journalists to repeal the highly restrictive 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act, which gives the government the power to license and close newspapers, has gone nowhere.
The Malaysian government's relationship with the foreign press has been contentious for years, and 2003 was no different. Despite his many accomplishments in the economic sphere, during his long tenure Mahathir has frequently acted as if criticism of his government in the foreign press is an affront to the entire nation. The government routinely attacks foreign publications verbally, hauls them into court, or bans their distribution.
In April, the government threatened to ban the U.K.-based Economist magazine over an article that praised the economic accomplishments of Mahathir but urged him to step aside gracefully for the good of the country. Pro-government organizations staged public burnings of the magazine, and Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said, "I think we have to take serious action [on the matter]." In the end, the magazine was not banned.