Winning hearts and minds in cyberspace

Feb 20, 08

The nation goes to the polls next month and this time the campaign is going online, as opposition parties turn to blogs, SMS and YouTube to dodge a virtual blackout on mainstream media.
Major newspapers and television stations – many partly owned by parties in the ruling coalition – are awash with flattering stories on the government and its achievements ahead of March 8 general elections.
The opposition parties rate barely a mention, but thanks to the Internet they have begun campaigning feverishly in cyberspace with the aim of reaching young, urban, educated voters.
“They control the television but we’ve got YouTube now,” said 31-year-old Lee Sean Li, an accountant who avidly surfs the Net for alternative news and complains there are only negative glimpses of the opposition in the main media.
Lee was delighted to see parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang post a speech on the upcoming elections, just minutes after Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi dissolved parliament earlier this month.
“I was impressed at how professional he was and it is a clever use of technology,” Lee said, adding that 67-year-old Lim is one of the most “wired” politicians in the country.
While many of his generation may struggle to send an email, Lim runs three blogs which are meticulously updated with multiple posts every day, and many of the party’s other leaders follow suit.
“Blogging is one way to get word out and an opportunity to circumvent media control,” said Lim from DAP, which is aiming to dent the government’s thumping majority in the upcoming vote.
“We cannot neutralise the state-controlled media,” he told AFP.
“But Internet pick-up rates will keep getting higher. We will not be blacked out forever.”
Traffic ‘to increase tenfold’
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranks Malaysia 124 out of 169 on its worldwide press freedom index, and says the main media are “often compelled to ignore or to play down the many events organised by the opposition”.
One of the alternative pioneers is Malaysiakini, an online news journal which since it began operating in 1999 has been raided by police and denied media passes for its reporters to cover government events.
Co-founder Steven Gan said the use of the Internet as a campaign tool was hampered by penetration rates which remain low in rural areas where the government enjoys strong support.
“But in urban areas, it is significant. They now have this alternative access to news and other views,” he said.
Malaysiakini receives about 100,000 daily hits and has struggled to cope with the volume since an unprecedented series of public protests against the government broke out in recent months.
“During this election period, I expect it to increase by tenfold and we are preparing for that kind of explosion in the coming weeks. We have upgraded the bandwidth for better access,” Gan said.
Not restricted by age
Islamic opposition party PAS runs its own online journal HarakahDaily which features six different online television channels and original reporting on the election.
And political dissident and ex-deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim also writes his own blog which has news links and videos of his Keadilan party’s campaign activities.
Anwar last year used the site to release a video clip which allegedly showed a high-profile lawyer brokering top judicial appointments – a scandal which triggered a full royal commission of inquiry.
Well-known blogger Jeff Ooi, who is standing as a DAP candidate in the elections, said news and views on blogs appealed to a cross-section of people and was not limited to urban youth alone.
“It is not really restricted by age. We are attracting many concerned citizens who are above 45 years old and these are the people who are more interested in politics and the oppositions’ viewpoint,” he said.
“Our campaign videos will be transmitted through YouTube because it is unlikely for television stations to broadcast them, of course,” said Ooi, who is facing a defamation suit by the government-linked New Straits Times.
Malaysian bloggers have been heavily criticised by the government which accuses them of spreading lies, and threatened severe punishment and tighter controls on Internet use.