I (TP) today got a chance to meet with an author, Karim Raslan, who writes a column that you can find a lot of places here in Southeast Asia. Just in Malaysia he writes for the Star, Berita Harian, and Sin Chew Jit Poh, and he has contracts to write for various dailies in Singapore, Indonesia, and a couple other places in the region. (In case you are looking for his current writings, he’s taking a sabbatical. He’ll be back soon, he says.)
The contrast between the status of journalism here in Indonesia and those in Malaysia is particularly interesting. In Indonesia, these days, anything goes. There are dozens of national newspapers and weekly news magazines, and hundreds of regional ones. As far as freedom of the press goes, Indonesia far outstrips Malaysia these days. While the situation was different under Soeharto, in Indonesia today, so long as you avoid outright slander and libel, most anything can be legally printed. You still have to be careful about strongly criticizing the government–a Balinese student was jailed the other day for burning a picture of President Susilo–but you can get away with most anything.
Things here are not the same. The Malaysian government retains tight control over the press in at least two ways. The first is through the use of the Printing Presses and Publications Act, which requires that print publications apply for a license every year. The government can withhold a license for any publication without having to provide any reason. You can imagine how this encourages self-censorship. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the government maintains tight control over the press through ownership. All of the main media outlets, including all of the major newspapers, are owned by conglomerates close to the regime. The newspapers have an uncanny way of painting the government’s actions in the most favorable light, while being openly critical of the opposition. In a telling example, one of the things that Mahathir Mohammad did before sacking Anwar Ibrahim in September of 1998 was to manoeuvre editors who were close to Anwar out of their positions near the top of newspapers like Berita Harian, replacing them with his own choices. Other fun facts are that members of the ruling coalition regularly print ads in the newspapers around election time, but opposition parties always have their advertisements rejected.
Small wonder Karim these days spends more time in Indonesia than in Malaysia.