Background on Steven Gan and Malaysiakini.com.
|Bringing news to the Internet|
TERENCE SMITH: Joining me now is Stephen Gan, a recipient of this year's
international Press Freedom Award, which is given for courage and independence
in reporting the news by the Committee to Protect Journalists. He is
the founder and editor of Malaysiakini, his country's first commercial
Steven Gan, welcome, and congratulations on your award.
STEVEN GAN: Thank you for inviting me.
TERENCE SMITH: Tell us a little about Malaysiakini, what it is and why you started it.
STEVEN GAN: In Malaysia, we have the situation where the government has strict control over the media. You need to apply for a publishing license, and it's only those who are very close to who have close link to the government can actually get publishing licenses, and with the Internet you don't need to get a publishing license, partly because of the fact that the government has promised that there will be no censorship of the Net. And that's why we are physically exploiting that loophole.
TERENCE SMITH: So it's a loophole in some rather restrictive press regulations?
STEVEN GAN: Yes. And, you know, in especially government would not allow the mainstream media to report freely on especially political news, and with Malaysiakini, we don't have to worry about that.
TERENCE SMITH: What would the government do to the mainstream media if they did report independently on the government?
STEVEN GAN: Well, in many cases the mainstream media would not - it would not report on anything that's critical to government simply because the mainstream media is either directly or indirectly controlled by the governing political parties in Malaysia, you know, and some of the newspapers are actually owned by the political parties, so, you know, that you won't expect, you know, the political parties to - of these newspapers to be critical of their own political parties.
|Battling government restrictions|
|TERENCE SMITH: And you know this firsthand because you've
encountered some problems reporting in the mainstream media in Malaysia.
STEVEN GAN: I have spent about three years working in the mainstream media, and I've faced quite a number of problems fighting from within, especially against self-censorship - which is an obsession in the mainstream media. It's a problem that we have to face practically every day, whether to run a certain story or not, and that's a situation in the mainstream media.
TERENCE SMITH: And I believe you've had to try to get your stories published outside the country and, in one occasion anyway, went to jail for something you'd written.
STEVEN GAN: Well, I went to prison because of the fact that I was reporting on the situation in East Timor, and there was a conference on East Timor in Malaysia, which I attended, and it was broken up by a mob of government youth groups, and they tried to stop the conference, and a lot of people there were arrested, and I was one of them.
TERENCE SMITH: And you were arrested and held, and then you tried to write about that.
STEVEN GAN: Yes. And when I came out from prison, I wrote about my experience there, and that piece was not published, and I decided that was the final straw, so I left.
TERENCE SMITH: And this led eventually to the setting up of Malaysiakini, which means -
STEVEN GAN: It means "Malaysia Now."
TERENCE SMITH: Malaysia Now. And tell me about it, what it is, how you got it started, and how it's going.
STEVEN GAN: Well, Malaysia Now is - Malaysiakini is actually a daily news Web site. We are no different from any of the other major newspapers in that we report news just like any other newspaper. The only thing different is that we do not need to get a publishing license, so we don't have to self-censor ourselves. We don't have to worry about pleasing the government - we can be critical, and when we need be - so we have reporters - we have about eight reporters now - we started off with four. We are one year old now exactly. In fact, it was launched in November 1999, and we have - because of the freedom that we are in - we are able to break quite a lot of stories. In fact, you know, we have news stories that are not being reported by the mainstream media every day, and that is why we've been so successful; we've gone from zero to a hundred and twenty thousand visitors a day.
TERENCE SMITH: Every day?
STEVEN GAN: Every day. That will put us, I think, in league with some of the major newspapers in Malaysia.
TERENCE SMITH: Has it been difficult financially to keep this afloat?
STEVEN GAN: Yes. I mean, just like any other new enterprises. We were lucky that we managed to receive a grant from the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, which is a regional journalist body based in Bangkok. They've been very supportive of what we're doing, and also we put in our own money, but, you know, we've been very successful in terms of getting advertising. We are now making, with advertising revenues alone we are making about half of our operating costs. So, you know, we are much better off than a lot of other dot-com companies out there.
|Breaking free of the mainstream|
TERENCE SMITH: Can you give me an example of the sort of story that you have published that the mainstream media has not felt free to publish?
STEVEN GAN: Anything that's critical of the government - especially regarding say, for instance, the independence of the judiciary. That is definitely -- you don't see that happening in reports in the mainstream media -- anything that is-- especially commentary that would - would look into about the economy and all sorts of political problems that exist - that wouldn't go into mainstream media.
TERENCE SMITH: And when you do publish things that are critical of the government, what happens? Do you hear from the government? Do they try to crack down on you?
STEVEN GAN: The good thing about all this is that the government has maintained its pledge.
TERENCE SMITH: To leave the Internet alone?
STEVEN GAN: That's right. So, you know, so far, we haven't heard anything from the government; there's no harassment. In fact, the government has tried to engage our readers - one of the ministers is participating right now in Q&A on line in Malaysiakini. The prime minister would recognize our reporters during press conferences, so in that sense that's a good thing. I think in a sense we are actually bringing about a little bit of opening in the government in terms of you know, the fact that it cannot simply just shut down critiques - but they have to engage them.
TERENCE SMITH: Now, their pledge to leave the Internet alone was actually - had a certain self-interest to it.
STEVEN GAN: Yeah. That's right.
TERENCE SMITH: Explain that.
STEVEN GAN: Well, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has believed that Malaysia should be part of this IT [Information Technology] revolution, and that there is a project which - which he conceived, which is called the Multimedia Supercorridor project. Now this project is akin to something similar to Silicon Valley in the United States. Now, in order to entice big IT companies, especially form the states, for instance, to come to invest in Malaysia, he had to give the pledge that there is no censorship of the Net.
TERENCE SMITH: Now - and so far he's been good to his word?
STEVEN GAN: So far he's been good, yeah.
TERENCE SMITH: How many - you say that there are over a hundred thousand people a day visiting the site, reading what it is that you write. But how extensively available is the Internet to ordinary people in Malaysia?
STEVEN GAN: Well, it's not getting across to a lot of people - in fact, 120,000 readers a day - you know -- there should be a lot more than that. Malaysia has about 20 million people, and -
TERENCE SMITH: How many of those 20 million have access?
STEVEN GAN: Only about 15 percent - one-five. So, I think somehow, you know, that there has to be - and the government is encouraging a lot of people, a lot more people have got access to the Internet - and I think we will have to wait for more people before we can reach all those people.
TERENCE SMITH: In fact, the Committee to Protect Journalism described your publication as a model for press freedom in authoritarian countries, authoritarian regimes, is that right?
STEVEN GAN: Well, I think when we started this project, we never thought that we could be a model. I think basically Malaysiakini is there for the few of us who are journalists - committed journalists - to be able to allow us to do our job and to be able to report truth and that is exactly our aim, and it is still our aim really so that we can actually go about doing our work without having to worry about government censorship.
TERENCE SMITH: Could the government shut you down if they chose to?
STEVEN GAN: Yeah, they can any time they can block our Web site. They can come to our office and take away our computers, or they can arrest us any time. But still, as I say, we are taking risks here, and I think we are prepared for that eventuality, and when that happens, we'll go underground. ... We can still easily set up another Web site. So it's not easy for the government to shut us down in that sense. As long as we are free to report, we will continue to do that.
|A revolution of the mind|
|TERENCE SMITH: So this is a revolution, not just a technological
revolution, it's a revolution intellectually and of the mind as well?
STEVEN GAN: I think it's interesting in the sense that the loophole is there, and the medium is there for us to exploit, and we're doing that.
TERENCE SMITH: And the opposition, the political opposition, are they exploiting the Internet as well?
STEVEN GAN: Yes. I think a lot the opposition political groups have their own Web sites - there are a lot of pro-reform Web sites. The difference between Malaysiakini and all these Web sites is that we are providing credible news. The Web site is being run by professional journalists Anyone can sell a Web site but with Malaysiakini, we are a credible source of news.
TERENCE SMITH: They used to say the pen is stronger than the sword; maybe the keyboard is too.
STEVEN GAN: Yes. That's right.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Steven Gan, congratulations again, and thank you very much.