Techies sidestep Malaysian govt

By Lee Min Keong, ZDNet Asia

MALAYSIA — As police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse thousands of activists Saturday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysians had to turn to the Internet in search of news reports and updates.

On Nov. 10, some reported 30,000 people staged a rally in the country’s capital, calling for electoral reforms to ensure a free and fair general election which is expected early-2008. Organized by Bersih (which means “clean” in Malay), the rally involved a coalition of some 70 non-governmental organizations and opposition parties.
Mainstream print and broadcast media were advised to play down the incident, and most took heed.
Undeterred by the government-imposed media blackout, many turned instead to alternative new media–encompassing an array of online news sites, blogs and YouTube videos–to get updates on the country’s biggest anti-government street protest in a decade. This move parallels recent events in Pakistan, where students turned to the Internet to bypass media blackout and galvanize the community during the Nov. 7 protest rally against President Pervez Musharraf.
In Malaysia, local online news site Malaysiakini, reported a massive spike in page views over the weekend, so much so that it had to put up a stripped-down version of its front page to ease network congestion.
Malaysiakini’s editor-in-chief Steven Gan, told ZDNet Asia the Web site registered about 1 million unique visitors on Saturday, a 10-fold increase over average daily numbers. Gan said rally video clips streamed on the site were viewed by over 50,000 visitors over the past few days.
To further ease network bottlenecks due to the heavy demand, he added that Malaysiakini uploaded on Saturday its Bersih rally videos on YouTube, which is better able to provide much greater bandwidth capacity.
Gan’s news site was not the only one to do so. A search on YouTube yielded at least 100 Bersih rally-related video clips, with the most popular registering 120,000 views to date.
Uploaded soon after the rally was staged, the clips ranged from videos filmed with the protestors’ camera-enabled mobile phones, to news broadcasts run by CNN and Arabic news and satellite TV channel, Al Jazeera.
An array of blogs also gave extensive coverage, complete with on-the-scene citizen journalist reports, analyses, photographs, and links to rally video clips.
Popular local blogger Jeff Ooi recorded a five-fold increase in page views on his site Screenshots , last weekend.
In a phone interview with ZDNet Asia, Ooi said: “Screenshots  recorded a spike of 24,600 page views and 21,000 unique visitors on Saturday alone. This is unprecedented for weekend traffic, which usually hovers around 5,000 page views a day.”
Even theCICAK (which means “lizard” in Malay), an online socio-political youth magazine run mainly by Malaysian students from foreign and local universities, seemed to have covered the rally more comprehensively than the local mainstream media. Founded in 2005, theCICAK hopes to develop a generation of “thinking” Malaysian youth, states its Web site.
Plugging the independent hole
Ooi noted that alternative media platforms are filling the void of independent news coverage created by the abdication of local mainstream media in the country.
The Malaysian government, he said, was “caught with its pants down” in its attempt to impose a media blackout when activists and the opposition party were able to divert their campaign to the Internet, satellite TV channels, blogs, YouTube, and cell phones and text messages.
Local media reports quoted police as saying only 4,000 people turned up for the rally, while international wire services and Malaysia’s local alternative media estimated between 30,000 and 50,000 people participated in the march. Thousands more were reportedly locked out of Kuala Lumpur, due to massive traffic jams as police set up roadblocks on the main arteries leading into the capital.
A senior editor of a local daily newspaper, who spoke to ZDNet Asia on the condition of anonymity, confirmed a media blackout was imposed and that the Malaysian government had instructed the local media to downplay coverage of the rally.
Activists also alleged that government operatives or its supporters conducted a campaign to sabotage the Bersih rally. Several pro-Bersih Web sites and blogs were hacked, while the SMS (short messaging system) tool of a key opposition party was commandeered to send out messages claiming the Nov. 10 rally was postponed.
The Bersih secretariat confirmed its Web site was hacked twice last week in the run-up to the rally. “On both occasions, the hacker inserted messages saying Saturday’s rally had been postponed,” said secretariat member Liew Chin Tong, in a phone interview.
He revealed the coalition has “learnt its lesson” and since moved its site to a more secured server. Liew also noted that the use of various technologies such as the Internet and YouTube, helped alleviate the impact of the local media blackout.
The opposition Peoples’ Justice Party (PKR) claimed its SMS news system was hacked in the run-up to the rally. PKR information chief Tian Chua said in his blog that “someone infiltrated our [SMS news] system” and sent out a text message, purportedly from the king himself, saying the rally was canceled.
According to Malaysiakini’s Gan, the government is uneasy about its inability to control the new media. He noted that ministers were unable to come to terms with the regular use of technology by opposition parties, activists, bloggers, NGOs (non-government organizations) and other groups.
“[The Malaysian government is] not able to deal with it. Technology is not going away, [society] is getting more open,” he added.
Gan conceded, however, that the Internet is unlikely to have a major impact on the outcome of the upcoming general election. “But, the Internet and technology will play an increasingly important role in bringing about true democracy in Malaysia… In about 10 years’ time, the full impact may be felt,” he said.
Lee Min Keong is a freelance IT writer based in Malaysia.