Malaysian state-linked media left scrambling after poll upset

Sam Reeves
A media scrum as Anwar Ibrahim is released earlier this month: traditional state-linked media are now trying to shed their reputation as official mouthpieces

After decades of slavishly backing the only government Malaysia had ever known, state-linked media are scrambling to find their feet after the election landslide, seeking to shed a reputation as official mouthpieces but facing a challenge from plucky independent websites.

The coalition led by scandal-plagued Najib Razak unexpectedly lost power at the May 9 polls for the first time since independence from Britain in 1957, defeated by a reformist alliance that promised sweeping changes.

The toppling of the authoritarian regime has fuelled hopes of a new era. State-linked media, which had seemed increasingly out of step with the views of many Malaysians yearning for change, wasted no time in switching their support to the new government.

They had spent years backing ex-leader Najib -- reporting in only a muted fashion on a massive financial scandal that helped to topple his regime -- but quickly began giving blanket coverage to a flurry of fresh revelations related to the controversy, and to the new government of 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad.

Traditionally pro-government media insist they are happy that the shackles have come off and they can now report in a more balanced and fair fashion.

Wong Chun Wai, group managing director and chief executive officer of The Star Media Group -- which produces leading daily The Star -- told AFP it was "a breath of fresh air for all of us".

"The public wants reports that will have perspectives from all sides. The media, I am sure, will look forward to that."

- 'Lurch to other side' -

But the quick change of tack of some TV stations and newspapers has sparked criticism that they are simply following a decades-old impulse to back the government of the day, and are more interested in their own survival than in fair and balanced reporting.

Jahabar Sadiq, who has set up leading news portals in recent years, told AFP that traditional media "seem to be lurching to the other side" by supporting the new government.

It appears "they haven't changed their spots but are just going for the newest master in town", he added.

Malaysia's main media outlets have long been tightly controlled through laws such as the printing presses and publications act -- which allows the home minister to revoke a publication's licence. Many were owned by parties in the former ruling coalition and by businesses aligned with them.

There are tough laws in place which critics say are aimed at stifling dissent, such as the colonial-era sedition act, along with legislation against "fake news" which was rushed through parliament before the election.

The new government has pledged to improve the environment for the media. Communications Minister Gobind Singh Deo reportedly said this week that the fake news law would be repealed and that media freedom was his main priority.

Some of the country's traditional newspapers -- which, like papers worldwide, were already struggling due to falling circulations and news on smartphones -- may even fear for their long-term survival without official support.

- Plucky websites -

One of their main challenges comes from the crop of news websites to have sprung up in recent years.

They do not face the same restrictions as traditional papers and have made a name for themselves by reporting on graft scandals and the misdeeds of the ruling elite, filling a void left by pro-government media and becoming a thorn in the side of the old regime.

The country's leading current-affairs website Malaysiakini, a pioneering portal set up in 1999, has faced continual harassment ever since. Its editor in chief and chief executive were charged in recent years for violating a communications law.

Popular news website the Malaysian Insider, whose chief editor was Jahabar, was blocked by the government in 2016 after running stories about graft allegations swirling around Najib.

It was later shut down after its owner, The Edge Media Group, said talks had broken down to sell the loss-making portal.

In the short term, news portals will be heaving a sigh of relief.

"We don't have to be so afraid of the government clamping down on us," Malaysiakini chief executive Premesh Chandran told AFP.

But he predicted a tough road ahead. Traditional media groups with more resources might start doing more independent and balanced reporting, and new players would enter the market.

The media landscape was set to become "very competitive", he said.