On March 8, elections were held to the Malaysian parliament. The incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, who lost its two-third majority in parliament, had held power since independence from the United Kingdom in 1957. In the months leading up to the election, accusations had been flying about corruption and a system designed to keep the ruling party in power. 40,000 people are reported to have marched in Kuala Lumpur in November of last year demanding electoral reform. The government’s reaction targeted online media: the country’s most prominent blogs and news websites were blocked, including Malaysia Today at about 3:30pm, which began the day of the protest with minute-to-minute reports such as “Walkers are gathering in hundreds near Jalan Melayu (Malaya Road) Gate” and directing readers to as yet unblocked sites. In April of 2007, in a by-election in the town of Ijok, it was a Malaysian blogger, Raja Petra Kamaruddin, who reported that of the 12,000 voters in the district, some 1,700 were phantom voters, with people as old as 107 still on the rolls. Others listed as voters were as young as eight years old.”
The power of blogs and online news outlets is established in Malaysia. Malaysiakini, a website, is the most popular news outlet in the country (and incidentally was available only sporadically after about 3:30pm during the protest of November 10, 2007). In the March 8 elections, Jeff Ooi, a member of Malaysia’s opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), won a three way race for a seat in parliament and now blogs on his political blog Screenshots, from within Parliament. In fact, five of Malaysia’s newly elected parliamentarians are bloggers.
Blogs are unusually powerful in Malaysian politics. According to a USINFO state report by Stephen Kaufman released today, “Weblogs (blogs), text messages and copies of
Internet-streamed videos became the most influential information
sources for voters ahead of Malaysia’s March 8 parliamentary elections.” On March 25, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said the BN’s strategy of ignoring blogs and online media was responsible for his party’s losses in this election. He states the BN “certainly lost the Internet war” and that is was “a serious misjudgment” to rely only on government controlled newspapers and television to communicate their campaign message. Dr. Abu Hassan Hasbullah, a University of Malay Media Studies Lecturer, reports 70% of voters were influenced by blogs, claiming that the main stream media does not report on pertinent government corruption or on religious and racial tensions. Hasbullah claims that the BN had two websites and one blog in 2004, while the opposition had thousands of blogs. Voice of America reports readership of the country’s independent blogs surpasses that of print media.
What is interesting about this change in news delivery and citizen communciation is difficult for the government to completely control. Malaysiakini.com’s Steven Gan says “It’s not going to be easy” to impose government restrictions on bloggers and the internet. “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.”
Crossposted on I&D Blog