Interview with Steven Gan

International Press Freedom Awards

Interview conducted by CPJ Asia program consultant A. Lin Neumann in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in November, 2000.

COMMITTEE TO PROTECT JOURNALISTS: Tell me about Malaysiakini. How did it get started?

STEVEN GAN: Malaysiakini was formed by journalists who [had] worked in the mainstream media, who [were] getting a bit fed up with the level of censorship in the mainstream media. We felt there was a need for us to get into an alternative [medium] to break that self-censorship, to get across to Malaysians … that information [is] not getting through.

There are a few reasons why the Internet was the best way…. The first reason is because there are quite a lot of people going into the Internet mainly because … it is a new medium and it is not being censored. Mahathir, the prime minister, has said time and again that he will not censor the Internet mainly because of the fact that he would need to ensure the success of the Multimedia Supercorridor, which is a Silicon Valley-type project in Malaysia. Also … because we don’t need to raise that much money; we don’t have to worry about distribution–it is there already … we don’t have to get a publication license, which is required of all print and broadcast media in Malaysia. With an Internet site you don’t have to worry about getting a publication license, you don’t need to worry about getting an annual permit, to renew it …

CPJ: What’s wrong with the Malaysian media? Why is it self-censored? I thought this was a democracy.

SG: The mainstream media is either completely or directly owned by political parties in Malaysia, so in that sense there is very little room for editors to go beyond, in terms of criticizing the governing political parties in Malaysia. In that sense, that is what is wrong with the mainstream media.

CPJ: Journalists in Malaysia have been sued or lost their jobs. You had a comfortable job in Thailand. Why risk coming back into what could be a potentially dangerous situation?

SG: I have a strong belief in media freedom. I think that by setting up Malaysiakini we can actually … help to improve the media situation in Malaysia, and I think we are doing that. We are putting pressure on the mainstream media simply because we are reporting things that are not being reported by mainstream media. In that sense, people are able to see that there is other news that is not being reported and they can compare and say hey, look you know, the mainstream [media are] definitely censoring themselves on certain issues … As a journalist I believe in being able to do my task, do my job. Journalism is also very much a part of a movement for democracy, good governance … it should play a watchdog role. And that is why I decided to come back here to set up Malaysiakini.

CPJ: What kind of reaction has there been to Malaysiakini, first of all from your readers, and second of all, from the government?

SG: When we first started it was very difficult…partly because of the fact that we started off with a few … relatively inexperienced journalists. I tried to get a few of my old colleagues who are from the mainstream media, very experienced, but they are not willing to “defect”–to join Malaysiakini. But we did very well. We managed to break quite a few major stories in Malaysiakini … and the response from our readers has been completely overwhelming. In fact, in our first proposal, when we started this project, we targeted 20,000 readers by year-end. We have already hit more than 100,000 readers per day.

The response from the government was initially very much a case of ignoring Malaysiakini. But I think we have reached the stage where they are finding it very hard to ignore Malaysiakini, to the point that … the [minister for youth and sports], who is the head of the youth section of the major party, UMNO [United Malay National Organization] … participated on an online Q&A on Malaysiakini. We reached a point where we are now considered very much a media organization–we have a sizable number of readers [so] the government ministers feel they need to engage them. Malaysiakini, like it or not, is there … given the fact that they hold true to not censoring the Internet I think the option for them would be basically to engage our readers.

CPJ: You were the first real news site online in Malaysia… the first Malaysian Internet newspaper.

SG: I think we [were] the first daily news Web site in Malaysia. There are currently a number of other Web sites [whose] contents are uploaded not so frequently. Ours is uploaded [almost] daily. Our focus is more on daily news, but we have our share of commentaries and analyses. We are still the only daily news Web site in Malaysia … we are lucky in that we have no competition. The mainstream media [are] still very much focused on the print edition, which means that they are not updating their Web site so often–normally their Web site is being updated the morning that the print edition comes out. For us, the news is basically real time.

CPJ: Malaysia is a tri-racial society. How does Malaysiakini address that issue? What languages do you publish in, for example?

SG: I think there is definitely … language apartheid in Malaysia, to a certain extent. The English readers would read an English publication almost exclusively while the Bahasa [Malay] readers– would read [a] Malay language publication. I think we need to bridge those two different communities [together] and that’s why we decided to publish in … English as well as Bahasa. It’s very difficult in many ways to work in two languages … but I think that is the way to go because we are actually bringing in two different communities that have never been that much engaged in a discussion of the day on a lot of issues, that do not understand what the other community is thinking, and we have been able to bring them together and try to overcome that language barrier.

CPJ: What are a couple of big Malaysiakini stories; a couple of stories you’re proud of?

SG: I think a story that made Malaysiakini known to a lot of people, is a story we broke a few days after we launched. We discovered that a Chinese newspaper had published a photo of government leaders [in 1995, when] Anwar Ibrahim was the deputy prime minister, so he was in that photo with Mahathir. But the newspaper decided to swap–they doctored the face of Anwar Ibrahim with the current deputy prime minister and we noticed that, and we managed to get an original photo and we ran both together … and it led to a situation where the editor of that newspaper had to apologize.

The other story is where we exposed that there [was] strong evidence that the chief justice had [gone on holiday] with a corporate lawyer who [had] appeared in his court. That [was] clearly a case of judicial misconduct. That case is a long-running issue. There were photos on the Internet of the chief justice and the lawyer together in New Zealand, and then we got more evidence regarding their controversial holiday, which included ticket stubs showing that they actually took the same plane all the way to and from New Zealand with their families.

CPJ: What risks do you think still exist for Malaysiakini? Are there still potential political risks?

SG: Yes, definitely yes. We do not know exactly what our future is, really. I think the government can shut us down anytime. They can come into our office and take all our computers. We are prepared for that eventuality. Definitely living in Malaysia and working as a journalist in Malaysia is really walking on thin ice. But when it comes to that, we are definitely willing to continue on. I think the government would [find out that it is not] easy to shut down a Web site. They may take away our physical computers, but so long as we are free, we will continue to report.

CPJ: Working as an online journalist in a place with at least a moderately, sometimes severely, authoritarian government, what kind of lessons are there for other journalists in similar situations around the world? What can people learn from the Malaysiakini experience?

SG: I think definitely the Internet is a medium that can help to break that government monopoly of information, in situations where there is no media freedom, where the government basically controls access to information. This is a completely new experiment–we are learning from others as well. The medium is definitely quite exciting in many ways, in a sense that later on we hope to be going into audio as well as video, so we will be bringing all three [media] together. For the time being we are still very much text based and we’re happy with that. What Malaysians are looking for is alternative information and we’re providing them with that.

CPJ: In the new economy, we’re used to talking about companies that are operating on millions and millions of dollars. Give us a sense of how many millions of dollars you started Malaysiakini with?

SG: We launched Malaysiakini with not more than US$100,000, and we have managed to survive with that amount for one year. We are raising more money now and I think we’ve raised enough to continue on. We are quite confident that we can continue on and even expand. In fact, had we not expanded, we would have broken even by now… but we started out with 4 journalists, [and] we now have 14. We want to continue to expand, because … our readers are very demanding; we want to provide [not just] independent political news but also independent business news, which is … also very lacking in Malaysia; so we’ll see how far we can go. But we are very positive and confident that we are gaining heights from here.

CPJ: What is your next goal for Malaysiakini?

SG: Our main goal is for Malaysiakini to be a proper media organization; and [to provide] a model for other journalists to follow, to a certain extent. So far, no journalists have worked in the Internet and actually been successful within that medium. Our goal is also to ensure that we will continue to play a role in [pushing] the envelope of press freedom in Malaysia, and I think Malaysiakini will play a major role in that. In terms of being a business model, our goal is for journalists in Malaysiakini to be able to own and control the organization, which means that we are providing a model where journalists themselves actually own the organization they work for. We hope to achieve that in one or two years time.