25 March 2008
Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi says his long-ruling coalition underestimated the power of the Internet, in advance of this month's elections. Mr. Badawi's ruling coalition suffered its worst losses in its history, after members of the opposition used the Internet to vent their views, circumventing the country's tightly controlled mainstream media. Luis Ramirez reports from Bangkok.
Malaysia's mainstream media is tightly controlled by the government. Opposition leaders complain they did not get equal access to air time, in advance of the elections this month, while the ruling coalition of Prime Minster Abdullah Badawi spent millions of dollars on campaign ads.
In the end, the investment did not pay off for Mr. Badawi, whose Barisan National coalition in power for 51 years, lost its two-thirds majority in parliament and several states.
Speaking to an investors' conference, Tuesday, the Malaysian leader said his coalition "certainly lost the Internet war," and said it was "a serious misjudgment" for it to rely solely on government-controlled newspapers and television to get out its campaign message.
Many voters say they ignored the mainstream media and turned to independent blogsites like Malaysiakini.com, where they could see news on official corruption, religious and racial tensions and other issues that the mainstream media often does not report.
Observers say readership of the country's independent blogsites has surpassed that of mainstream print media. It was boosted even further ahead of the March 8 poll. Malaysiakini.com Editor in Chief Steven Gan tells VOA his website stopped charging subscription fees in the weeks before the election.
"We've been, really, surviving on our readers' paying a subscription fee of about $5 a month," said Gan. "But we have made the site free because we felt we had to also play a role in providing information to Malaysian voters so they could make an informed choice."
Malaysia's government does not openly censor blogsites, as part of promise it made in the 1990's to not interfere with the Internet. The promise was part of an effort to draw foreign investment in plans for a new high-tech industry corridor. The plans for the corridor have since stalled, leading media freedom advocates to worry about whether the government may soon start imposing restrictions on the Internet. Officials say they have no such intentions.
Malaysiakini.com's Steven Gan says it would be difficult for the government to try to impose restrictions on the Internet, at this stage.
"It's not going to be easy," he said. "I always describe like [this]: Press freedom is like toothpaste, in a sense. When you squeeze a little bit of it out, it's going to be very hard to put it back in again."
Media freedom advocates say Malaysian authorities sometimes pulled the licenses of newspapers and broadcast outlets that carried news that was unfavorable to government officials. Blog sites like Malaysiakini.com are able to operate because they are not required to have licenses.