You can't see journalist Steven Gan's work in newsprint. His reports aren't broadcast on the evening news; his stories don't crackle over the radio airwaves. But, using a 21st century tool, Gan hopes to break free of the political repression he says journalists in Malaysia have fought for decades.
Gan is co-founder and editor of Malaysiakini.com, Malaysia's first news journal published only on the Internet. The site's name means "Malaysia Now," and through it, Gan says he publishes stories other local journalists can't.
|Since 1984, Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has
required print and broadcast journalists to obtain, and annually renew,
government licenses. The licenses stipulate the language and frequency
of publication, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports. And to keep
the licenses, Gan said, publishers are quick to remove items that could
irk the government.
"The mainstream media is either completely or directly owned by political parties in Malaysia," Gan told the CPJ in October, "so in that sense, there is very little room for editors to [criticize] the governing political parties."
For years, as a print journalist, Gan butted against Malaysia's tough press restrictions with investigative reports detailing alleged government abuses of power.
As a reporter for Malaysian daily newspaper The Sun, Gan wrote a series of reports in 1995 on the deaths of 59 inmates in a migrant worker detention camp. When Sun editors refused to print his stories for fear of arousing government anger, Gan turned his articles over to a human rights group for publication.
In 1996, Gan was one of several journalists arrested while covering the Second Asia Pacific Conference on East Timor -- a meeting in Malaysia of activists from Asian nations to discuss the growing unrest in the Indonesian territory, which gained its independence in 1999.
Gan attempted to chronicle his five days in captivity for The Sun, but its editors refused to publish his reports. Gan resigned in protest.
|But where print and broadcast media faced tight restriction,
the world of the Internet enjoyed nearly unfettered expansion. In 1995,
Mahathir laid the groundwork for the Multimedia Supercorridor -- a government-sponsored
Silicon Valley-type project to lure profitable Internet ventures to Malaysia.
One of the project's edicts was the Web was not to face any government
censorship. For Gan, this government loophole was his path to a free press.
"With an Internet site, you don't have to worry about getting a publication license, you don't need to worry about getting an annual permit [or] renewing it," Gan told the CPJ.
In November 1999, he started Malaysiakini.com with $100,000 and a staff of four journalists. Now, a year later, Gan's staff has increased to 14 and his site claims nearly 100,000 visitors a day.
Throughout its first year, Malaysiakini.com reported on deception in local newspapers as well as misconduct in the Malaysian judicial system. It also provided in-depth coverage of the November 1999 elections that extended Mahathir's nearly 20-year rule as prime minister.
The Web site's controversial reports have been noted by the BBC, The Washington Post and the International Herald Tribune.
Based just outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysiakini.com's staff resides in Malaysia, but its computer server is based in the U.S. -- placing it far away from future government restriction. The site is funded by grants from the Southeast Asia Press Alliance and advertising revenue.
Although his publication has, so far, survived government intervention, Gan said he is still in a risky business.
"I think the government can shut us down anytime," he said. "They can come into our office and take all our computers. We are prepared for that eventuality."