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AWSJ: Political News Web Site Struggles To Profit In Malaysia
By Douglas Appell
17/2/2001 7:42 pm Sat
[Satu perbincangan menarik mengenai kemelut laman Malaysiakini.
Sikap kerajaan memusuhi laman web akan mencemari cita-cita MSC.
Mengapa FEER tidak memohon maaf dengan melapurkan sesuatu yang
diharapkan oleh Malaysiakini masih menjadi tandatanya.
Kami mengambil sikap memerhati dan berkecuali dalam isu ini.
Perhatikan seorang pekerja insuran dibuang kerana iklan
syarikat (percuma) tersiar di laman Malaysiakini. Komen
ZAM nampaknya seperti komen budak tadika.
Malaysiakini akan gulung tikar jika ia gagal menyakinkan pengunjung.
Di sinilah kesaktian pena dan kebenaran akan memainkan peranan.
Kebenaran tidak akan tenggelam, yang tenggelam cuma orangnya sahaja.
Wang akan menghancurkan perjuangan jika itu matlamat yang sebenarnya.
Political News Web Site Struggles To Profit In Malaysia
By DOUGLAS APPELL Staff Reporter
KUALA LUMPUR -- The news site Malaysiakini.com was founded to do two
things -- offer hard-hitting political coverage, and make money. In
Malaysia, that combination can be treacherous.
That became clear to a Malaysian insurance agent recently when he
found himself out of a job after placing a banner ad on the site with
his company's name. The company says he was sacked for failing to get
clearance from the company beforehand. It declined to say whether the
firing was also punishment for lending the firm's name to a
publication that isn't afraid to criticize the government.
Last week, Malaysiakini ran into new political obstacles. After a
magazine reported the start-up had received funding from hedge-fund
guru George Soros -- a despised man in many parts of Southeast Asia --
Deputy Home Affairs Minister Chor Chee Heung urged that Malaysiakini
reporters be barred from covering government events. The threat is a
serious one for an electronic-newspaper that lives on political
Such minefields could derail a company that would otherwise be a prime
candidate to succeed in the New Economy sector that Malaysia is eager
to promote. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad talks proudly of
megaprojects like the Multimedia Super Corridor, and of plans to
foster a "knowledge economy." About a year ago, Malaysia launched
Mesdaq, a new stock exchange to help fund local technology companies.
Malaysiakini is, in effect, a test of just how much the government is
prepared to loosen its iron grip on the media to meet its commitment
to nurture high-tech. The company's managers haven't given up hope
yet. Politics may complicate efforts to make independent journalism a
commercial success here, but "we can do it," insists Chief Executive
Officer Premesh Chandran.
The company has already made inroads in the local media market,
exploiting the government's "hands off the Internet" pledge, which
exempts online outlets from the annual licensing requirements for
mainstream media. Malaysiakini attracts more than 100,000 visitors a
day with the sort of coverage critical of Dr. Mahathir's government
that is rarely found in the country's major dailies. Some recent
headlines: "Pro-Malay Gathering Turns Into Anti-Mahathir Rally" and
"Anti-Corruption Agency Urged to Investigate Sarawak Chief Minister's
But the independence that attracts readers also scares off some
advertisers and investors. The income profile of Malaysiakini's
audience -- only a small percentage of Malaysians have access to
computers and the Internet -- should make it an attractive venue for
online advertisers. Yet, the perception of government hostility toward
the e-newspaper is a deterrent, says one advertising industry
executive who declined to be identified. That view is seconded by an
executive at a multinational company, who, also requesting anonymity,
professes admiration for Malaysiakini's reporting.
The case of the insurance agent illustrates why the fear exists. In an
article about Malaysiakini in The Asian Wall Street Journal last
August, Islamic insurer Takaful Nasional Sdn. Bhd. was cited as one of
the Web site's advertisers. Takaful responded with a letter to the
paper denying it had any links with Malaysiakini.
In the letter, Kamaruddin Sharif, principal officer with Takaful,
explained that the company dismissed the employee for using the
company's name without its authorization. Noting that Takaful is
government-owned, Datuk Kamaruddin pointed out that the free banner ad
hadn't contributed to Malaysiakini's revenues.
Datuk Kamaruddin didn't respond to requests for further comment on the
Malaysiakini's approach to the news could affect its financial
prospects in other ways. For example, worries about a government
clampdown may deter strategic investors or make it difficult to list
the company's shares, says Ian Yoong, a financier with CIMB Securities
Sdn. Bhd in Kuala Lumpur.
So far, though, the online paper's problems have been rooted more in
the perception of government distaste for the site than in any
official action against it. "The government has basically kept its
word not to interfere in the Internet," says Mr. Chandran. He sees
growing evidence that even people within "the establishment" see the
need for "something like Malaysiakini."
Now in its second year of operation, Malaysiakini -- like most of its
Internet brethren globally -- isn't generating enough revenue to cover
its operating costs of 80,000 ringgit ($21,053) a month. The company
seeks equal chunks of revenue from advertising, content sales and
technology joint ventures, and hopes to break even by the end of this
year and be profitable in 2002, company officials say. A local stock
market listing could come sometime later.
For now, though, the company needs funding. It is "on the verge of
closing a deal to sell an equity stake to an investor who shares our
values of promoting independent media," Mr. Chandran says. He declines
to elaborate on the identity or location of the investor.
Financing became a politically perilous issue this month, when the Far
Eastern Economic Review reported that Malaysiakini had received
funding from George Soros, whom Dr. Mahathir has singled out as the
villain behind Asia's financial crisis in 1997. A few days later, Mr.
Chor, the deputy home minister, said organizations without
government-granted media accreditation, such as Malaysiakini, should
be barred from covering government events.
Malaysiakini denied the report in the Review, which is owned by the
same company that publishes this newspaper, Dow Jones & Co. The site
said it hasn't received any money from the international financier.
The Review later issued a clarification, saying Soros money went to
the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, or Seapa, which in turn funded
Malaysiakini. Seapa, however, said the Soros money was used for a
project unrelated to the Malaysian news site. The Review has declined
to endorse assertions by Seapa and Malaysiakini that the site received
neither direct nor indirect funding from Mr. Soros. Seapa is a
nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom in the region.
Malaysiakini Editor in Chief Steven Gan says he is bitter over the
Soros episode. It could undermine the credibility that is essential to
Malaysiakini's success, he says, adding that it will be months before
the damage can be assessed.
Meanwhile, Mr. Chandran is emphasizing the positive. The government,
he points out, seems split over Mr. Chor's recommendation. An aide to
Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who heads the Home Affairs
Ministry and is Mr. Chor's boss, says Datuk Abdullah will continue to
allow Malaysiakini reporters to attend his functions.
But the signals are mixed. Information Ministry parliamentary
secretary Zainuddin Maidin told reporters Sunday that "Malaysiakini
(journalists) are barred from covering press conferences not because
they are critical of the government, but because their credibility is
in doubt." Datuk Zainuddin cited the alleged Soros financing as proof.
Meanwhile, Malaysiakini will continue to operate in the "gray area"
that exists because of the government's pledge to promote the Internet
in Malaysia, says Mr. Chandran. "The government doesn't want to
legitimize us, but at the same time they're allowing us to operate,"