The Malaysian Insider's closure sparks questions

A big question buzzing in Malaysia is whether The Malaysian Insider (TMI) news site, which ended an eight-year run on Tuesday, was shut down because of financial losses or because of government pressure to toe the line.

And like most big political questions in Malaysia, it will take time to decipher the truth.

The Edge Media Group, TMI's owner, said it had incurred losses of some RM10 million (S$3.3 million) in the 20 months since it bought the news site in June 2014. Although the site drew over a million unique visitors a month, it failed to "receive enough commercial support".

But in a country where conspiracy theories are consumed as eagerly as the national beverage teh tarik, many see a hidden political angle.

After all, many ask, why didn't The Edge group sell TMI to one of the three potential suitors, or to its former editor, who was leading a management buyout? This would help The Edge get some money back, or even make a tidy profit.

For others, such as journalists and opposition politicians, TMI's closure sent a chill down their spines. They see the battles that TMI lost as part of a media crackdown. After all, access to the site was blocked two weeks earlier, and its editors were called up several times by the police over previous stories.

TMI was at the forefront of stories that questioned the dealings of state fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd, whose advisory board is headed by Prime Minister Najib Razak. Datuk Seri Najib had also been on the defensive over alleged donations of some US$700 million (S$950 million) from Saudi Arabia and a government company, SRC International.

TMI's former editor Jahabar Sadiq wrote in The Guardian on Wednesday: "Our content became our readers' discontent. And their discontent became our content - to the dismay of the government that prided itself as moderate and transformational."

With Mr Najib in an unassailable position politically, his next step could well be to tighten his grip further on media conversations, including on social media, as he tries to steer South-east Asia's third-biggest economy back to calmer waters.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 18, 2016, with the headline 'KL site's closure sparks questions WhyItMatters'. Print Edition | Subscribe