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Malaysia in transition

Mahathir moves to free Malaysian media from political parties

PM considers limiting party stakes to 10% to ensure freedom of expression

A large proportion of Malaysian media are controlled by political parties. (Photo by CK Tan)

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Friday political parties that controlled media companies could have their stakes reduced to ensure press freedom.

The majority of the country's mainstream media, both print and broadcast, are controlled by political parties in opposition, including the United Malays National Organization, the party of former Prime Minister Najib Razak which held power until the election in May.

The move could cause a major change in the way Malaysian media report on political issues. When Mahathir led the country between 1981 and 2003 as the former head of UMNO, the pro-government media worked in his favor by promoting government policies and demonizing opponents.

In the run-up to the May election that unseated Razak, Mahathir, as head of opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan, was subjected to attack in the media. However, he vowed to return press freedom to the country and review all laws and regulation governing the media industry.

When asked by reporters whether the government was looking at reducing the stakes held by political parties in media companies to 10%, Mahathir said the issue was under consideration.

"This is one way to prevent the media from being used by certain quarters for personal reasons," said Mahathir.

The country's media landscape had already been shaken by the surprise election result.

Right-leaning Malay daily Utusan Malaysia was recently declared bankrupt after defaulting on borrowings. Controlled by the pro-Malay UMNO, the paper had previously relied on government assistance for its survival.

An executive at the private television station TV3 told the Nikkei Asian Review the company had been left in "limbo" after Najib's departure from office, awaiting instruction from the government on the direction of its coverage. Owned by UMNO-backed Media Prima, it was highly critical of Mahathir after the 93-year-old politician joined the opposition to challenge Najib.

If the stake-limit ruling is implemented, several other media companies are expected to be affected. One will be the New Straits Times, the country's oldest English language daily. Established during the British colonial era, it was once considered a quality newspaper that was essential reading for working professionals. Controlled by Media Prima, its daily circulation dropped to 36,000 at end-2017 from 100,000 five years ago. Media Prima also owns several TV and radio stations.

Apart from UMNO, the Malaysian Chinese Association, a once powerful party in the Najib-led coalition, owns The Star, currently the biggest English language daily with circulation of 202,000 as of end-2017.

But independent media outlets have prospered with the change of government.

"Now we have so many advertisements that we have no space anymore," Steven Gan, editor-in-chief and co-founder of online portal Malaysiakini, told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview. Once the subject of regular crackdowns by authorities for publishing stories deemed critical of the government, Malaysiakini now enjoys a good relationship with the administration, including an invitation to cover Mahathir's recent trip to China.

Established in 1999 as the first subscription-based online news portal, Gan said over 17 million visitors followed Malaysiakini when he removed the pay-wall on election day on May 9. After the election, a top official from the Chinese Communist Party even visited their offices during a trip to Malaysia to meet Mahathir. Gan said Guo Yezhou, a deputy director of the party's international liaison department, wanted to know about the portal's operations.

The proposal to curb media stakes by political parties came after the government repealed the Anti-Fake News Act -- controversial legislation hastily passed by Najib's government weeks before the election.

Despite the proposed move to limit politically-linked stakes, media industry experts still want the government to do more for press freedom.

"Limiting political party share ownership of the mainstream media to 10% will not significantly change the media culture," said Eric Loo, a senior fellow at the University of Wollongong in Australia. He called for political parties or politicians to be excluded altogether from the industry to preserve the independence of journalists reporting on public matters. Based on Malaysia's past experience, such independence has been compromised when mainstream media favored the ruling party in their reports, said Loo.

Malaysiakini's Gan was more optimistic, saying Malaysia could be seen as a "bright spark" in the region if the country moves toward promoting a free press.

Researcher Ying Xian Wong contributed to this article.

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