is a country that occupies an almost invisible point in global mediascapes.
According to the recently launched “Baseline Study on Freedom
of Expression and Freedom of Information in Malaysia”, the problem is
located both in the strongly restrictive legislations, as well as the passivity
that they engender:
“The vast majority of
journalists, editors, commentators and politicians accept the existing
conditions, even as they fall victim to their restrictions and absurdities.
Well-paid journalists, having put up with a restrictive environment for
decades, rarely rock the boat. Thus, the Malaysian media seldom make
international headlines. Journalists are not murdered, and until recently, very
few were attacked as a result of their professional activities. The everyday
indignities they do suffer fail to make the headlines. All this has contributed
to a culture where freedom of expression and information are devalued” (page
Jac sm Kee speaks
with one of the most vocal media and communication rights advocates in the
country, Sonia Randhawa, through
an online messenger platform about motivations, communication technologies,
rights, democracy, tactics and gender.
Sonia currently sits as the Executive Director of the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ).
Apart from conducting regular trainings on independent media and communications
strategies, CIJ is also developing community radio programmes that innovatively
combine “old” and “new” technologies – radio and the internet – through Radiq Radio.
JK: What made you decide to be a communications
JK: This issue is quite underprioritised for many NGOs in a
way, especially within women's movements.
SR: The truth is Operasi lalang. I remember, after revelling
in my week off school, that I wanted to start up an underground newspaper. Obviously,
at 14, my ideas on this were not particularly well-developed - but it was
definitely that I was a journalist and first saw, and still see, activism as a
part of that, rather than the other way round.
JK: So you always knew that you wanted to be a journalist? I
wanted to be a news anchorwoman, but my ambitions were more mainstreamed! I
didn’t think of an underground newspaper. Why underground? did you thnk by then
there was something inadequate about mass media?
SR: Well, not always... there's been everything from
forensic scientist to chemical engineer, kindergarten teacher....
with the mass media. I had a week off school for 'race riots' in KL, we were
living in Shah Alam [note: KL =
capital city of
The papers and TV showed the story of Korporal Adam, but some of the papers
the others were saying. We got Aliran and the Rocket in our house, but they
weren't regular enough to provide the information that we needed - did we need
to stockpile food? and most importantly WHAT was happening in KL? [note: Aliran
is a non-partisan magazine that provides
on mainstream news; The Rocket is a newspaper by an opposition party,
Democratic Action Party]. It was half an hour away, but it may have been much
further. It was an uncertainty that led to my parents' selling our house in Shah
Alam, getting ready to be able to leave the country if necessary...
JK: Basically you grew up in a household that was quite
'alternative' in that sense, that was already quite politically aware?
SR: It wasn't ever something that i was overtly aware of. Don't
forget that both these publications had much larger circulations at that time
than now! But, yes, particularly my mother. We woul
these things over dinner, for example. I was very aware of the political environment, by the
time i was in my early teens.
JK: From there..?
SR: Well, I left shortly after to study in the
assumptions underlying the system were similar but it was like Plato's cave, and
realised that i'd only got to know the simulcra of the real thing.
JK: Plato's cave?
SR: That if you are chained into a cave, all you see are
shadows and you mistake them for reality. We had a shadow of democracy, and no idea of the real thing. I wrote
my first letters to newspapers when i was 15, around the time (i think) of the Pergau
dam affair. I can't remember the issues i was talking about, but i
was incensed at the misconceptions of Malaysian 'democracy' and wanted to
explain to the
public that seriously, this wasn't how things were. My English teacher
definitely encouraged me in this, as did one of my friends to whom i used to
complain when i read stories about
in the media there. So, once i felt able to exercise these (writes) rights, i
JK: How would you compare your experiences and actions with
most of other Malaysian young women at the time? Or in fact, now? I feel that
there is a general sense of wanting to do something by young people, but also a
very strong sense of fatalism and apathy.
SR: I think in some ways I had a much easier journey to
political awareness than most young people - male or female. Not that I've not
caused my family some anxiety or that they understand why i do what i do. But i
suspect that would be the case if i was a merchant banker as well!
SR: I don't remember 'becoming' aware. I have spoken to
others who speak of a moment of revelation. But even at the age of about 8 my
(conservative) father told me i should be a lawyer, NOT because i could make
lots of money, but because that way i could help people. Money was never seen
to be a legitimate motive for action in my family, at least for my generation.
Important, yes, but not sufficient. So compared with a lot of young people, i
have it easy
JK: What do you think is the major stumbling block towards
freedom of expression in the country?
JK: Fear of..?
SR: Both our own fear (and ignorance) and the fear (and
ignorance) of those in power. Fear of our own voices!
JK: How do you mean? Why should there be fear? I mean, it's
quite a talkative nation :)
SR: Fear that if we start talking, we'll start killing. We
talk, but we often don't say anything a
lot of what we say is in what is left unsaid. Fear that if we talk, we'll be
locked up. Fear that if we talk, we'll end up like
(as a country!) Oh, and of course, on the part of authorities, fear that if we
talk, they'll be seen for the naked emperor's that they really are!
JK: What is the environment that generates this kind of
fear? This is in a sense, more self censorship than anything else.
SR: Well, first, there is the legislation - which is
routinely described as Draconian. But it's not just Draconian, it's also
undefined. Under Malaysian law, almost everything is a crime. As you know - it
can be used against anyone any time - for chalking symbols on the pavement, for
saying things, for not saying things. And the ambiguity of what is inside or
outside the law means that we have to GUESS what is or isn't legal - because
the law says EVERYTHING is illegal. Which leads to uncertainty and
self-censorship - this isn't necessarily a conscious process, but it's one that
you see continuously. It's also built on a lack of knowledge. People don't KNOW
what the law says - so the law could say anything (admittedly this might not
change if they did know what it said, but i still think it's better to know
JK: How is it possible for people to not actually know what
the law is about? In what way has the law been painted as something so
omnipotent and omnipresent? I am thinking mass media has a large part to play
in this, and the control of..
SR: There was a survey conducted by the Merdeka Centre
around 2003. They had a question asking people if they agreed with repeal of
the ISA [note: Internal Security Act that allows for indefinite detention
without trial], and 80% said no. They had another question asking if detention
without trial was unjust, and 80% said yes! So, this is a mix of mass media and
lack of education.
JK: Do you think there is a difference in quality in terms
of self censorshop when it comes to women and men?
SR: Not so much when it comes to what is conventionally
defined as 'politics'. The particular female self-censorship operates in a
different way - so the way in which freedoms of expression and information are
traditionally conceptualised is, yes, very gendered. It is very much concerned
with 'traditional' forms of communication. Which doesn't work for women as well
as for men.
JK: Can you explain?
SR: Take a newspaper, or radio, or tv. They require vast
amounts of investment, at least for national dailies. This in turn limits the
number of people who can own them. This in turn limits who can speak in them -
this is a huge simplification. But basically, it means that there are very few
gatekeepers, and these gatekeepers are invested with a lot of power. So it
works against women's voices in a number of ways. First, how stories are
defined. They are often defined by easily identifiable newsmakers. Politicians
and pundits - that in the early 2000s George Bush got as much media coverage as
ALL the women in the USA (George bush was given 9% of 'news' air time, and all the women in america that were interviewed
for whatever reason in the same period also got 9% of the news air time. Men,
in total, got 92%). These people decide news - along with the editors, the
educators etc. and women's stories, women's voices are often not included
unless, as we see in the intermittent conflict between PAS and UMNO, it suits a
'larger' political agenda [note: PAS, Parti Islam Malaysia is one of the
country’s main oppositional party; UMNO, United Malays National Organisation,
is part of the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, or BN].
JK: Can you explain how women's voices are mobilised to suit
a larger political agenda?
SR: Take PAS and UMNO. Women's votes have been crucial in
keeping umno in power. So for the 2004 general election, women needed to be
SHOWN that life was/ is better for them under BN. We got Shahrizat [note: the
Women, Community & Family Development Minister], we got, um, very little
else - but we were also warned about the insensitive PAS agenda. Women were
given space to speak, women's rights were given space. But after the election,
we have the Islamic Family Law, moorthy, couples caught kissing, the VAW
chalking debacle etc etc etc [note: all these are examples of prominent cases
where race and gender based stereotyping an
were played out on mainstream press]
SR: Shall i continue with the second point?
Jac: Yes please.
SR: Ok... so, first point is that women's news just isn't
news. Second, that women often find it difficult to access corridors of power.
So, when there are not many corridors leading to seats of power, it makes it
harder to find women in either the corridors OR the seats (possibly taking the
JK: lol. But i get what you mean.
SR: But the number of women working as journalists is high -
probably more women than men in the newsroom.But they just aren't in the
boardrooms. There are women working as Senior Journalists – we even have a
feminist in Jacqueline Ann Surin in a position as assistant (i think) editor at
The Sun. But she has a hard time pushing the feminist agenda - take for example
the story she wrote explaining her problems with a sexist advertisement shown
on the sun's front page. There was a car competition thing on the front page,
with two girls draped over it. The Sun gave it the caption 'which would you
take home', then the story said, the car of course blah blah. Jacque brought it up in editorial meetings and was told
she was over-reacting - why do women have to be so emotional. BUT the paper did
publish her column slamming this - and pointing out that if sex sells to men,
it shows that they're the irrational, emotional ones. he he
JK: interesting..So how do you, as something of an
alternative media gatekeeper, who is aware of gender relations, strategically
respond to such issues?
SR: I think that would be a start... but we need to multiply
the number of gatekeepers, start an exponential movement so that the power that
they have is likewise exponentially decreased. I don't think you can do away
with them altogether. Take the radiq project [note: www.radiqradio.org]. We're committed to
the idea of having as little in the way of gatekeeping as possible. But the
project has been set up and is owned by CIJ, which means that there are people
deciding who gets airtime when. We also have made some decisions to try and
ensure that discussion takes place an
act as an impediment to free speech - eg not allowing hate speech. But this is
an incubator project - we hope that it will be replicated 1,000 fold in community
radio stations across
(with legislative change!) In which case, those who are gatekeepers will be
decided largely by interest, rather than geography, money (because radio is
cheap) and possibly - though the one hardest for women to breach - time
(because a radio show can be made in half an hour!).
JK: Do you think digital communications and informations
technology such as the internet has transformed the landscape in anyway for
these freedoms to happen? Take the radiq project as an example.
SR: Kinda. Initially, the Internet was a male dominated area
- and to some extent it still is. Penis enlargement spam outnumbers breast
enlargement spam at *least* 1,000 to one! Problem number one for women. Second is that there is a
high skill set necessary for the internet. Women are disadvantaged by not
having the time to learn the necessary skills. Third, money - high cost of
online communication cf radio (eg) and high cost of infrastructure. Fourth,
inbuilt biases - the language of the internet is deeply English - down to the
code on which it is built. The technology is largely owned by the West, so
there is a net outflow of money to the
from developing countries investing in ICTs etc. Fifth, incompatibility with
traditional forms of communication - eg storytelling, though this is to some
extent being overcome by newer technologies. BUT, the internet is proving
useful first in circumventing existing repressive legislation - such as with
the Radiq project (combining old and new technologies, rendering broadcast laws
outdated!). Generally, though, i think that the obsession with ICTs is
problematic, because it is taking resources away from other forms of
communication. Because ICTs is the ideal tool for marketing and advertising NOT
for community-based communication.
JK: You don’t think so? What about community forums like the
USJ one which is very popular? [USJ forum is an online community of residents
who live in a particular suburb in Selangor] In terms of discussing local
governance issues as well as advocating for very community based actions?
SR: Nope, not really. I attended a forum with
another, unsuccessful, pioneer of online forums in January, and the conclusion
that they came to was that Jeff was successful partly because of the
interaction on online and offline activities... that the online forum works
BECAUSE it facilitates offline activities. But beyond that, USJ - you're
looking at an area where there is a mix of affluence and squatters and estate
workers. Who does USJ online serve? You're not seeing those second groups being
JK: Good point. So in a sense, ICTs is able to provide more
amplification of voices to those who can access them in the first place, and
this is true even when ICTs have this multiplying factor, where members of more
traditional mass media access ICTs for information to produce their content. How
does CIJ as an organisation that works with alternative media, combining both
digital and 'traditional' forms of media, strategically work with this
environment to ensure a diversity of voices?
SR: First on amplifying. Partly yes - was just discussing
this! In somewhere like
it is also allowing some people to speak than would otherwise not - because of
the ability to speak anonymously. BUT this is still restricted in many ways -
to those with the time, money, skills etc.
JK: and language.
SR: Second, how we (try to) deal with this in CIJ. First -
we specifically target groups ignored or marginalised by the mass media -
indigenous people, especially women, for example. And we help them acquire the
skill sets for RADIO - not the internet. This is much simpler than teaching internet
skills.Then they can make radio shows - we are powerful gatekeepers in the
sense that the shows have only us as an outlet. BUT we also try to discuss with
them alternative ways of getting the programmes out (using ideas such as narrow
casting which is basically the distribution of CDs or cassettes). These give
them more control over the process and the option of cutting us out if they
JK: I see this as a great strategy to get women, esp
marginalised women, to become acquainted and familiar with technology in the
SR: i like to hope so!
JK: But with the emphasis on ICTs an
i also see digital technologies, for example the internet, as something that
cannot be avoided in the future. I think this is one of the challenges that I
see, in that a lot of decision making processes are starting to happen online
as well as offline, with e-governance, and information that is available on the
internet for the exercise of civil liberties.
SR: This is like globalisation - an assumption of
inevitability! I AGREE that decisions are happening online, and this is one of
hte problems with the digital divide.
JK: It seems that very proactive measures also need to be
taken to get women engaged and get over the fear of technology.
SR: Those already marginalised are being further marginalised.
JK: Yes... agreed. Which is why i feel that one of the
biggest strategic need is to change the landscape of communications and
information in a way that enables
greatest amount of participation by most people.
SR: Yes - but i think that concurrent with this needs to be
discussions and advocacy to ensure that we aren't caught up in something where
the large corporations and governments have defined the playing field and the
games, and we're limiting our arguments to which are the best moves within their
SR: So how to move forward....
JK: Yes, how to move forward?
SR: I think that projects such as the Akshaya
project in India seem to be powerful examples of overcoming the digital
divide - comprehensive training built in with the expansion of a broadband
network, essentials on local government etc. Free, but you pay for business and
entertainment news. But that attention needs to be paid to ensuring that women
can communicate in the arenas where their power is at its lowest ebb in some
ways - within the family, within the community.
JK: Without at the same time, limiting their decisions or
roles to that arena only.
SR: Agreed entirely! And it would be a disaster if we
concentrated on the 'bigger' ICT voices, forgetting eg community radio, and
also projects to ensure that women's voices are heard in their own homes...
JK: Yes indeed! Some of the most exciting and innovative use
of ICTs is really in the combination of old and new technologies. Like community
radio, or radio in a suitcase.
SR: A girl after my own heart! Exactly!
JK: Especially considering sometimes the limited mobility
of women, with multiple roles an
also social norms.
SR: Also, don't forget that once a woman (or anyone) finds
the voice in their own home, they are more likely to speak up outside of that
JK: Would it be fair to say that policies related to
governance, communication rights and so on, should not only be focussing
primarily on 'new' ICTs, but also on how to better ensure that ALL available
platforms and channels of information and expression become in a sense, more
accessible, and loser, esp for marginalised communities like women?
SR: They should be needs- not technology-driven, so no, not
focussing primarily on ICTs. I think that the second part of the question - if I
could answer that i'd be out of a job, happily so! Honestly - it's what we're working on. It starts, but
doesn't end, with legislative reform! And that starts imho with public
mobilisation. So, it's a process of protecting spaces for community media,
policies for ensuring equality of access and education to ensure that people
take advantage of these things.