Malaysia's mainstream newspapers: Credibility at stake

Kuala Lumpur - Most of Malaysia's mainstream newspapers appear to have taken a hit since the May 5 general election for perceived biased reporting.

The Umno-owned Utusan Malaysia has made the news with its pugnacious reporting and provocative headlines, and the English-language Star newspaper has also seen its reputation dented.

It is owned by the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the biggest Chinese party in the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition. "Star is in a dilemma of trying to be independent and yet pressured to boost BN's image," says Dr Shaharuddin Badaruddin, a political analyst at Universiti Teknologi Mara.

The Star is the largest English-language daily in Malaysia, averaging audited sales of 290,000 copies daily between January and June last year.

The No. 2 English-language daily is the New Straits Times with a circulation of 100,382.

Umno's network of media outlets is wide, according to the Kuala Lumpur-based Centre for Independent Journalism.

Via proxies, Umno controls Media Prima, which publishes the New Straits Times, Berita Harian and Harian Metro. It also owns the Utusan Group, which publishes Utusan Malaysia and Kosmo!

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Utusan Malaysia has been accused of biased reporting for years, and its circulation has fallen from 213,000 in 2006 to between 170,000 and 180,000 last year.

It has been overtaken by Harian Metro, now the largest Malay daily - its circulation rose from 210,000 in 2006 to 394,000 last year. Analysts say younger readers are drawn to its culture and lifestyle-based content.

Once the No. 1 English-language paper, the New Straits Times saw its circulation decline sharply from 1999 to the early 2000s, going from 180,000 to as low as 80,000.

Readers shunned the paper for what was perceived as lopsided reporting on Mr Anwar Ibrahim's sacking as deputy prime minister in 1998 and his subsequent corruption and sodomy trial.

"In the rural areas, the Malays hate slander. My research showed that only 18 per cent of readers will believe what was written on Anwar," says Dr Shaharuddin.

Like elsewhere in the world, newspaper readership is also facing challenges as younger people increasingly get their news online.

Internet users among Malaysia's 29 million population grew from 3.7 million in 2000 to 17.7 million in June last year, a 61 per cent penetration rate. Nearly two-thirds of Internet users are aged 21 to 40.

There were 13.6 million Facebook users in Malaysia as of December.

The top news website in Malaysia over the past month was the independent, according to, a site that tracks Web traffic.

"Urban readers are more connected and compare content with the alternative media. They see that the same event is given a different slant in the mainstream so people question this," says Dr Hah Foong Lian, a new media analyst with Monash University Malaysia and former reporter at The Star.

Three days after the general election, electoral watchdog Bersih and the opposition parties called on Malaysians to boycott the New Straits Times, The Star, Berita Harian and Utusan Malaysia for perceived unbalanced reporting.

Analysts say that although such a boycott would have little real effect in numbers, the mainstream media should be wary of Malaysia's strong civil society eroding their credibility.

"All mainstream papers reported in favour of their owners but after the election, The Star is the only newspaper that has become more balanced," says Dr Kiranjit Kaur, a media researcher at Universiti Teknologi Mara.

"It was very biased (during the campaign) but since the new Cabinet was formed without MCA, it may not feel it has to toe the party line too much these days."

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