Comeback bid by Malaysian news site that was shut down

Ex-Malaysian Insider editor Jahabar Sadiq is behind the new venture.
Ex-Malaysian Insider editor Jahabar Sadiq is behind the new venture.

The Malaysian Insider to return as The Malaysian Insight

The Malaysian Insider, a widely followed online news site that was forced to close just over a year ago by Prime Minister Najib Razak's administration, is set to make a comeback under a new masthead, The Malaysian Insight.

Mr Jahabar Sadiq, former editor of The Malaysian Insider and now the principal mover of the new venture, told The Straits Times that The Malaysian Insight will go online before the end of the month "as a free site before introducing a paywall sometime down the line".

In a country where the ruling political elite controls most media outlets, Mr Jahabar said the new venture would be independent in its editorial stance, even at the risk of upsetting the government, which forced its closure in March last year because of a story related to the scandal-plagued state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

Unlike print publications, which require publishing licences from the government, online media outlets in Malaysia do not require an operating permit.

However, the official Internet watchdog agency, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), has sweeping powers to block sites that are deemed to be acting against the national interest.

Malaysian media analysts said a new player like The Malaysian Insight is likely to shake up the market where print and online news outlets are battling sharp drops in circulation and readership.

Malaysian media analysts said a new player like The Malaysian Insight is likely to shake up the market where print and online news outlets are battling sharp drops in circulation and readership.

Mr Jahabar said the new site would focus on politics, particularly coverage in the lead up to the next general election that must be held by August next year.

  • A fractured media landscape

  • Malaysia's media landscape is fractured, with print and broadcast outlets tightly controlled through strict licensing rules and tough laws.

    Component parties of the governing Barisan Nasional coalition largely dictate coverage in top print media and broadcast organisations.

    Barisan's dominant party, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), directly controls both the New Straits Times, the country's most established English daily, and Utusan Malaysia, the oldest Malay language newspaper.

    Meanwhile, The Star, Malaysia's largest-selling English daily, is controlled by the Malaysian Chinese Association, the second most senior party in the ruling coalition.

    Umno also controls TV3, the country's main television station.

    However, the online media scene is more robust.

    Malaysiakini, the country's oldest news portal, has a strong following and provides Malaysia's opposition parties with wide coverage.

    Other news outlets include The Malay Mail Online, which is gaining traction among the country's growing social media audience.

    The Malaysian Insider was very popular with the Malaysian urban crowd, but the government blocked the news site just over a year ago.

    Leslie Lopez

Mr Jahabar said the new site would focus on politics, particularly coverage in the lead up to the next general election that must be held by August next year.

Other areas of attention will include the development of civil society movements, touchy issues of race and religion, and the domestic economy - in other words, issues that had made The Malaysian Insider very popular.

At its height in 2013, the site had 1.1 million unique visitors and 45 million page views a month.

The online site of Malaysia's biggest newspaper, The Star, said last month that between Jan 28 and Feb 26, it had 7.1 million unique visitors and 57 million page views. This was highest in its 21-year online history, helped by news of the Feb 13 murder of North Korean citizen Kim Jong Nam.

Mr Jahabar declined to identify his financial backers for the new project, only saying "it has taken me 10 months to convince some private equity and businessmen to give me a loan of sorts to do this".

The Malaysian Insider started operations in February 2008. It quickly became a top source for domestic political and general news coverage because of its exclusive reports and tough commentaries.

It also became a source of irritation for Malaysia's ruling political elite, because it often tested the limits of what was considered acceptable in a country where limits on press freedom is strictly enforced.

The website was taken over by The Edge Media Group in June 2014, which according to media industry sources paid roughly RM4 million (S$1.27 million) for full control.

The Edge, which publishes a financial weekly in Malaysia and Singapore, was hoping to leverage on the site's wide following to push into the digital space, said media executives.

But The Malaysian Insider's coverage of 1MDB's troubles brought it under closer scrutiny of the Najib administration.

In late February last year, access to the news site in Malaysia was blocked by MCMC.

About three weeks later, The Edge Media Group announced the closure of The Malaysian Insider for "commercial reason".

"The Edge experience has soured me on working with big media companies that say they share same values but close you down for commercial reasons on the first sight of trouble," Mr Jahabar said.

Correction note: This story has been edited to correct the date of the start of operations by The Malaysian Insider. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2017, with the headline 'Comeback bid by Malaysian news site that was shut down'. Print Edition | Subscribe