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Press freedom opens up in Malaysia, racial diversity stalls in US media

By Christina Okello

Journalists who exposed Malaysian corruption and paid the price have begun reporting freely since the 9 May election that toppled prime minister Najib Razak. While press freedom may be improving in Kuala Lumpur, racial diversity has some way to go in US newsrooms, a report says.

Before this month's general election, stories of state graft in Malaysia wre difficult to publish in the Malaysian media.

Razak's government went to great lengths to stifle scrutiny of the embezzlement of billions of dollars from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state fund founded by Najib.

Not anymore.

“The whole thing is that now we can report without fear or favour," Kamles Kumar, a journalist with the publication Malaysian Insights, told RFI.

The shock defeat of Najib's National Front coalition, putting an end to the 60 year-rule of his party, Umno, and its allies, stunned the nation.

The result brought the opposition Hope Alliance to power and Najib's former boss, 92-year-old Mahathir Mohammed badk to the prime minister's office.

For Kumar, Rajib's loss could be a gain for press freedom.

"I work for a news portal. We were the ones pushing for issues like 1MDB, donations into the ex-prime minister’s account to be covered, and now the whole media fraternity is reporting everything that we were reporting before and it’s very much a welcome change,” he said.

The scandal was a key reason why voters dumped Rajib on 9 May.

Mahathir promises press freedom

"I remember doing the whole week of campaigning during the elections," Trinna Leong, Malaysia correspondent for the Singapour outlet Straits Times, told RFI.

"I was in this one state called Johor, and I was very shocked. People who are traditionally supporters of the National Front decided at the last moment to switch and support the Hope Alliance, because they’re just so fed up with corruption and the cost of living, and these two things are linked.”

Najib is accused by the US Department of Justice of personally pocketing 681 million dollars (581 million euros) looted from a Malaysian government agency.

Not only has the Pakatan Harapan government of Mahathir Mohamad pledged a full independent investigation into the billions of embezzled funds but Mahathir has also promised to ease restrictions on the press.

Previously, the Malaysian government had pushed through restrictions on free speech, including punishing individuals for spreading fake news.

"The fact that that bill was drafted in two months, drafted and passed in two months was madness," comments Leong, who welcomes plans by Malaysia's new Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo to repeal the law.

"Of course it's good news," she said. "There is a desire to get rid of it because the new government has to show that they are going to fulfil their promises and this is one of the things that they promised to do."

Meanwhile, for journalists like Kamles Kumar the new measures are a step in the right direction. His publication, Malaysian Insights, previously known as the Malaysian Insider, was suspended under the former government.

“We were under pressure from the previous administration, to kind of sort of ease off on our reporting and lay back, but then my bosses are equally as rebels so they’re like ‘You know what, you can shut us down online but we will come out with an app and we will try to find a loophole in your system'."

They did that by devising an app called Malaysia Decides to avoid government clampdown.

Media diversity stalls in America

While the media landscape in Malaysia may be opening up, elsewhere in America, newsrooms remain shut to journalists of colour and women, according to a new study released in the Harvard Kennedy School.

"Race and gender in the newsroom are extremely problematic and it shapes the coverage we get and makes it worse," lead author Farai Chideya told RFI.

Since 1978 diversity numbers have only increased from 12 to 17 per cent.

As part of her research, Chideya interviewed an African-American reporter whose parents had lost their home in the mortgage crisis of 2008.

Chideya explains that because of the lack of journalists of colour, many newsrooms missed the mark in their coverage of the mortgage crisis.

It affected black and Latino homeowners particularly, "but because they're not covered in the press consistently, the unethical practices of banks to generate profit" went unreported, she explains.

"I argue that if there was media equity in coverage, we might not have got into the full blown mortgage crisis."

Chideya reached out to 15 news organisations asking for race and gender breakdowns, specifically of newsrooms’ 2016 political reporting teams. She heard back from four of them, in a sign of their unease in discussing diversity.

"Journalism sees itself as a protector of freedom in the United States but, when it comes to the business workings of American media corporations, you often find that the dialogue is very constrained and it's constrained by race, gender and wealth," she comments.

To improve some of these barriers, Chideya calls for a better share of power.

"There hasn't been a lot of will in the American newsroom to share power among people who essentially are decision-makers and by that I mean that journalists make the decision everyday about what is considered news. That's power and because it's power people fight over it."

Even if publishers and editors may not care about diversity, Chideya says they should at least be concerned about money and the likelihood of losing their audience share.

"If the news media continues to isolate itself from the growing numbers of Americans of colour, Americans will probably cease to be mainstream news consumers if they don't find value in what is being reported," she said.

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