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Alternative News

Frustrated by local media, Malaysians seek Anwar's story from other sources


By Murray Hiebert in Kuala Lumpur


October 8, 1998

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I n the days after former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was fired, visitors to his home in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur crowded around a giant bulletin board covered with pages from local Chinese-language newspapers. It wasn't the Chinese characters that intrigued the largely Malay crowds. "The Chinese press had many more graphic pictures of demonstrators" than the Malay and English papers, explains veteran journalist Samad Ismail.

Frustrated by what they call biased reporting about Anwar in local newspapers and television newscasts, Malaysians are turning to alternate sources of news--anywhere they can find them. Some troll the Internet, others turn to foreign newspapers, wire-service reports and satellite TV news for updates on the biggest political crisis to rock Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's 17-year rule. And even those without access to computers or satellite broadcasts can buy videotapes of Anwar's speeches advocating reform, made before his arrest on September 20.

The wealth of information new technology delivers is one factor that makes Anwar's challenge to the leadership of the ruling United Malays National Organization different from previous ones, when banishment from Umno spelled an immediate plunge into political obscurity. It also appears to be a source of frustration for Mahathir, who is accustomed to controlling the levers of power in Malaysia. The prime minister has accused foreign journalists of trying to engineer his downfall, while officials have blocked foreign news organizations from transmitting scenes of street demonstrations.

The Malaysian press has not ignored the Anwar story. But many Malaysians feel that it has overlooked one side--and gone overboard in reporting the other. Many express shock at the graphic accounts in the country's normally staid media describing Anwar's alleged sexual exploits in lurid detail. "I've never seen such a sordid description of things totally meant to destroy a person's credibility," says social scientist Syed Husin Ali, who heads a small opposition party. "But it seems they haven't succeeded," Husin says. "Most people don't believe it."

Malaysia's legal community worries that the detailed press coverage of Anwar's purported crimes makes a fair trial difficult. "The condemnation of any detainee through the media by the disclosure of alleged incriminating evidence would amount to a trial by the media and impede the conduct of a fair hearing in the court of law," the Bar Council warned in an official statement.

Others complain that local news organizations, all of which are linked to the ruling coalition, have abandoned efforts to report Anwar's side of the story. "Press coverage is very one-sided," says Adnan Hussein, who teaches journalism at the Science University of Penang. "We're far from Kuala Lumpur and the press isn't giving people here what they want to know about what's going on in the capital."

The lack of faith in local reporting has sent Malaysians scurrying on-line for news. Thousands have logged on to Web sites, such as www.caidmark.com.my and mirror sites outside the country, like www.anwar.cjb.net. Numerous bulletin boards have sprung up on which visitors post wire-service reports and eyewitness accounts, announce upcoming events and engage in debates. Much of this information is downloaded, photocopied and passed around offices and neighbourhoods. Photocopies of Anwar's letters to Mahathir and transcripts of his press statements are circulating even in remote villages. "The reason bulletin boards are so popular is that the local media hasn't covered the issue in a satisfactory way," says a young businesswoman in Kuala Lumpur.

The Internet is providing an outlet that wasn't available during earlier political crises. "Before, officials had absolute control over the dissemination of information," says P. Ramakrishnan, editor of Aliran, a magazine published by a Penang-based social reform group. "Now the Internet is giving them a headache. There's a lot of information coming through that they're not able to rebut."

Internet service provider Mimos has denied rumours that the government tried to block sites such as www.anwar.com.my, but it has demonstrated that it can monitor messages if it chooses. On September 24, four people accused of causing panic in Kuala Lumpur by spreading rumours about rioting on the Internet were charged in court. Police found them after Mimos helped trace e-mail messages back to their source.

The shortage of reliable local information has also bolstered foreign news sources. "People now seem to trust foreign papers and CNN more," says Samad, the retired journalist. He compares current reporting to the days of the Emergency in the 1950s when the British colonial army was fighting communist insurgents in Malaysia. "Locals then turned to ABC and BBC when they wanted to know how many casualties there were in a battle," Samad says of the Australian and British international broadcasting services. "Today there's a honeymoon with the Asian Wall Street Journal and CNN." (The Journal, like the REVIEW, is owned by Dow Jones.)

This perception has fostered markedly differing attitudes toward the foreign and local media among Anwar supporters as well as ordinary bystanders. Moments before the huge anti-Mahathir demonstration at the national mosque on September 20, a middle-aged civil servant noticed a Malaysian journalist taking notes, and started accusing him of being "unfair" and "lopsided" in his reporting. When the journalist protested that he didn't work for the local press, the man began chatting with him enthusiastically. A week later, when a group of foreigners arrived at a demonstration at the headquarters of the Islamic party Pas, the crowd began chanting "CNBC, CNN, welcome, welcome" without even knowing the journalists' affiliation.

Mahathir has a sharply different perception of the foreign press, accusing them of spreading lies about his sacking of Anwar. "Of course, I'm remaining in power because of my family and my cronies," he declared sarcastically hours before CNBC on September 25 aired a videotape in which Anwar accused Mahathir of corruption, "and you are free to air this every half an hour because you own the media and you can tell lies to the whole world and influence the world against us."

After police had spent several days chasing street protesters with tear gas and water cannons, local TV companies stopped feeding the footage to international news channels. "All foreign broadcasts have to be flown out," says one Western TV executive. "There aren't any rules, but no one wants to do career damage by feeding foreign stuff," he says of local TV officials.

Influential New Straits Times editor Kadir Jasin explained Kuala Lumpur's position in his "Other Thots" column on September 27: "The persistence of the foreign media in toeing Anwar's line and in condemning the government is mind-boggling. It gives rise to suspicions that they are promoting an agenda rather than reporting facts." But many Malaysians don't agree with that view. "For people who appreciate good news reporting," says journalism professor Adnan, "we're not easily bought by the argument that the foreign press is here to destroy the country."