Malaysia govt changes policy, reaches out to bloggers
from Channel NewsAsia
KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia’s government has said it will reach out to bloggers, dropping threats of arrest in a major change of policy triggered by a shock election loss that has raised calls for reform.
The nation’s mainstream media is mostly part-owned by parties in the ruling coalition, and what was seen as biased coverage in the run-up to last month’s vote has boosted demand for alternative news sources including blogs.
After being hit with the worst results in its half-century history, including the loss of its two-thirds parliamentary majority, the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition now says it wants to listen to dissenting voices.
Newly appointed Information Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek said he is keen to meet bloggers.
“I am trying to build a bridge between the government and the people so that we can have a two-way dialogue — and bloggers are a key part of this,” he told AFP.
“I am planning on meeting them soon,” he said.
But prominent bloggers have questioned the commitment of the government, which until recently had accused them of spreading lies and threatened severe punishment including detentions without trial.
“We welcome the government’s move to engage bloggers but we are not in any hurry to meet them,” said National Alliance of Bloggers president Ahiruddin Attan.
Ahiruddin, who met with Ahmad Shabery on Friday, said the offer of talks with bloggers needed to reflect the political will of the government.
“The success of the talks will depend on what kind of mandate he has from the Cabinet,” he said of Cheek’s proposal.
“He is going to be acting against the popular stand of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi that bloggers are a nuisance.”
Media analyst and blogger Nuraina Samad said bloggers have changed the face of Malaysian politics, becoming a vocal group that the government has to deal with.
“Many bloggers who turned to opposition politics before the last elections won the seats they contested,” she told AFP.
“You look at the issues people were talking about before and during the elections — many of them were raised by bloggers, and you did not see them raised even once in the mainstream media,” she said.
“Despite this, the points raised became major issues among the people during the election campaign, with the government parties forced to address these issues that had been blacked out in their media.” – AFP/ir
This is an interesting, though not totally surprising development. Following the unexpected opposition inroads made in the recent General Election, the Malaysian government has realised that it can no longer afford to just ignore bloggers, as they have proven their ability to swing votes away from the ruling party. (Some like Jeff Ooi and Tony Pua have even run for office and won.)
In Singapore, while the government-controlled media has occasionally interviewed bloggers for their opinions, there is still a reluctance on the part of the government to acknowledge the credibility of bloggers. Will we, for example, ever see political leaders granting interviews with citizen journalists? Or will citizen journalists be given press passes to cover events first hand, instead of having to rely on reports from the mainstream media? So far, the government has never responded to articles published on blogs, as if to do so would lend them more credance than they deserve.
My guess is that the reason why the Malaysian government wants to engage bloggers is so as to tone down their rhetoric. Once bloggers are invited to tea with the minister, it will be much harder for them to make strident, personal attacks on that minister. For now, Singapore’s political leaders feel comfortable letting the mainstream media do their bidding. But this may not be enough not too long from now, with the influence of online media increasing day by day.