Committee to Protect Journalists
Country Report: Malaysia
As of December 31, 1998

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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.
Attacks on the Press in Maylasia in 1998
Date Journalist Incident
10/05/98 All Journalists Threatened
08/09/98 All journalists Threatened
07/22/98 All Journalists Threatened
07/19/98 Ahmad Nazri Abdullah, Berita Harian Harassed
07/14/98 Johan Jaafar, Utusan Malaysia Harassed

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