by Romen Bose
KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 18, 2010 (AFP) - Malaysia bumps along the bottom of international rankings for press freedom, but the explosion of social media like Twitter and Facebook is revolutionising how journalists work.
Dissenting views, which for decades were screened out of the government-linked mainstream media, are now everywhere, including the blogosphere and mobile SMS messages, making repression extremely difficult.
One veteran reporter with one of the country’s leading newspapers said that for most of his career it was virtually impossible to write about the opposition or any issues deemed off-limits by authorities.
“But today, government MPs are forced to engage and debate their counterparts across the aisle in social media like Twitter and Facebook, allowing us to report on the opposition and avoid much censorship,” he says.
“Where previously we had to accept at face value a minister’s version of events or policies, today their disgruntled aides and opponents are already tweeting or leaking details on Facebook, giving us uncensored access.”
“Although the restrictions and controls are still in place, it’s become much harder to censor what the opposition or rights groups say in the media,” says the journalist who, due to the sensitivity of the issue, declined to be named.
Malaysia was ranked 131st out of 175 countries in the 2009 Reporters Without Borders (RSF) press freedom index, because of its tight controls on print and broadcast media.
The watchdog says Malaysia prevents journalists from properly covering sensitive subjects such as corruption or human rights abuses, using a publishing permit system which allows it to shut down media outlets at will.
After decades of such policies, self-censorship became rife and political leaders hardly even needed to make the much-feared phone call to the news room.
But the seeds of change were sown in 1996 when the government pledged not to censor online content as part of a campaign to promote its information technology sector.
Despite occasional raids, bans and government criticism, the web and online media remain relatively free.