Alternative Media Critical to Malaysia Election

April 4, 2008

Alternative Media Critical to Malaysian Election

Mary, USINFO; (04 April 2008)
Malaysiakini.com, one of the biggest alternative news blogs in the country

According to USINFO, a publication of the Department of State, alternative media played a key role in the March 8 parliamentary elections in Malaysia. The ruling Barisan National (BN) party received a surprising blow when it lost 58 seats in the 222-seat Dewan Rakyat. Although the BN still holds 63% of seats, it lost its commanding two-thirds majority. The BN has ruled Malaysia for 50 years.

At a forum on April 1, at the University Malaya, columnist Datuk Johan Jaffar noted that alternative media had a crucial effect on the election outcome. ?In Malaysia, people trust the Internet more than official sources? the [opposition] election campaign was conducted unconventionally and quietly,? and added that he hopes the recent campaign and election results will be a ?wake up call? for the government.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, a member of the BN, acknowledged on March 25 that his coalition ?certainly lost the Internet war,? and added that it was ?a serious misjudgment? for his party to rely solely on government-controlled newspapers and television in its efforts to attract voters.

The influence of alternative media on the election was partly due to the mainstream media?s lack of credibility. In a post from March 19, blogger Kalinga Seneviratne of Malaysiakini.com noted that Malaysia?s mainstream media (newspapers, radio, and television) are predominantly owned by business people with close connections with the country?s ruling coalition. This creates demand for less biased sources of information (or at least different perspectives). Unlike the mainstream media, blogs discuss issues such as government corruption and cases of judicial impartiality.

In addition to its value as a source of alternative information, the Internet was also used for campaigning and getting out the vote. According to Raja Petra Kamaruddin, who owns malaysia-today.net, the Internet?s biggest contribution to the election was motivating Malaysia?s middle class to turn out at the polling places on March 8. ?Alternative media cured the apathy the middle class has. They were no longer saying: ?Let?s not bother. Suddenly, it was let?s go and give the opposition a chance,?? Kamaruddin said.

Opposition candidates? effective use of the Internet to turn out the vote is no surprise given that five of Malaysia’snewly elected parliamentarians are bloggers. (Malaysia has approximately 500,000 active blogger total). By contrast, the online presence of the establishment Barisan National (BN), was extremely limited. According to the article, the BN and its allies had only two Web sites and one blog in 2004. (The article does not give more current figures.)

The article also gives interesting information about how CDs and cell phones were used for campaigning in rural areas where there is lower Internet access than in urban areas:

The widespread distribution of cellular phones in rural areas enabled the effective use of SMS (short messaging system) text messages, and campaign activists copied Internet-streamed television programs onto video CDs (VCDs) and circulated them in the countryside where VCD players are popular.

It is also worth noting that University Malaya media professor Abu Hassan Hasbullah announced on April 1 that he had conducted research which indicated that 70% of the election results ?were influenced by information in the blogs.? This is a very impressive statistic, though the article did not give any information about the nature of Prof. Hasbullah?s research methods or sample, so it is impossible to evaluate the reliability of this dramatic figure. Regardless of the credibility of that particular statistic, alternative media clearly played a dramatic role in the elections.

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