Cyber activism, the new frontier

by Helen Ang

The People’s Parliament shows how Malaysians use digital technology to advance cyber advocacy and activism, writes Helen Ang. One of its initiatives is the “Boycott the newspapers” campaign.

The People’s Parliament has an amazing reach for a socio-political network that is barely one year old. On 21 January 2008, this blog carried a post titled ‘Drama minggu ini dipersembahkan oleh MIC’. The post was rated No. 3 worldwide in the WordPress aggregator; at No. 1 was ‘Obama: I feel like I’m running against both Clintons’ in CNN Political Ticker and No. 2 ‘Clinton Camp: Obama’s sour grapes’ in FOX Embeds.

‘Blogs of the Day’ is a worldwide ranking of blogs in all languages. It was a major achievement for http://harismibrahim.wordpress.com to come in third globally behind the CNN Politics.com and FOX News.com websites that day.

As the URL indicates, People’s Parliament is really a blog. Though the address technically belongs to civil rights lawyer Haris Mohd Ibrahim, the People’s Parliament, is however really a participative project.


“Boycott the newspapers!”

It has several initiatives going at the moment, among them, the ‘People’s Declaration’ on aspirations for better governance, and ‘Get an MP’ to empower constituents in selecting Parliamentary candidates. Earlier, the People’s Parliament submitted its ‘Save the Judiciary’ petition to the Yang diPertuan Agong.

A programme I am actively involved in is ‘Boycott the Newspapers!’ The People’s Parliament held a press conference on 28 January 2008 to tell the media we are calling on Malaysians not to buy newspapers every Tuesday. Was it ironic that we told the very institutions we’re boycotting what’s in the works? No, we don’t think so. We were merely being transparent.

The  mainstream media (MSM), perhaps naturally, would not care to lend coverage to an effort aimed at curbing their circulation and revenue. In any event, they gave us the sort of negative publicity bestowed on banned books, i.e. not revealing content but nonetheless conveying the government view that the book is ‘unsuitable’.

By casting aspersions on our ‘Boycott the Newspapers!’ campaign obliquely in their columns and editorials, they’re inadvertently saying something in the subtext. If we are worth their op-ed attention, albeit though not as straight news, it means they believe we will have an impact.

Ground-breaking cyber advocacy

And so they should because cyber activism is a groundbreaking concept. In Malaysia, cyberspace is the brave new world which our repressive authorities have yet to choke , when they’ve already sunk their  claws into media ownership. The People’s Parliament may be the country’s first experiment in pushing this frontier.

In our literature, we have described ourselves as “cyber advocacy”. The nerve centre is online (what other channels do Malaysians have besides taking to the streets?) and it was  convened by Haris on 14 April 2007. He is site administrator and moderator on the public discourse but all commentators are stakeholders who shape the agenda. Therefore, the  People’s Parliament can be said to be a grassroots movement.

NGOs bring together people dedicated to a common cause; Aliran, for instance, is a social reform organisation with its office in Penang. The People’s Parliament is not a registered society. It merely allows for a virtual meeting place of minds that straddles the cyber world and actual ground. Banking on ICT, the movement bands pressure groups formed by diverse individuals living in different geographical locations who connect online to engage in nation-building.

Essentially, it is a conduit for the rakyat’s voice to be heard, and any Netizen can take part. Where People’s Parliament takes the platform to the next step – from talking to doing – is allowing this congregation to speak as a collective and to lobby with the aim of bringing about change. The Hartal MSM committee managing ‘Boycott the Newspapers!’ is one example.

In the main, we don’t buy newspapers not only on Paper-Free Tuesday but every day of the week. In my opinion, the morning paper is a mere habit. In Malaysia, it is an unhealthy habit which should be broken. Why this is so requires no explanation for this magazine’s readership: the Aliran Media Monitor’s Diary has done a conscientious job over the years in exposing the spin and skew practised by the MSM, and their adverse consequences on the reading public.

The idea of a boycott is not new but one whose time has come thanks largely to the emergence of New Media. There had been voices in cyberspace declaring that newspapers are not worth reading and encouraging fellow citizens to follow suit. What People’s Parliament did was to enable disparate voices to coalesce into a cohesive structure and take the message to the national level.

The ‘Boycott’ motion was proposed by Haris when he asked in a 14 November 2007 People’s Parliament post: ‘Do we, the people, have it in us to bring the falsehood mongers to their knees?’ He had been cheesed off by how the MSM downplayed the Bersih rally of 10 November 2007. I seconded the motion in my Malaysiakini column on 29 November. I had been cheesed off by how the MSM demonised the Hindraf rally on 25 November. Therefore ‘Boycott’ is also very much on the momentum of People Power.

In between the proposal’s genesis and our first salvo fired in Malaysiakini, People’s Parliament carried a lively discussion by commentators whose input had a positive bearing on the direction of Hartal. On 21 December 2007, Haris started the ‘Boycott the Newspapers!’ series both as a continuing media education process and “to sever the jugular vein of the government’s falsehood factory”.

Spirit of voluntarism

But  the time lag i reflects the shortcomings of our fledging outfit. Hartal MSM is doing this pro bono, on our own time at our own expense. Volunteerism is the spirit moving People’s Parliament.

It is no accident that half of the Hartal committee of eight are bloggers – Haris, Bernard Khoo who pens the popular ‘Zorro Unmasked’, Sharifuddin Abdul Latiff (‘Old Blue Eyes’ or OBE) and Capt. Yusof Ahmad (‘The Ancient Mariner’).

It is also blogosphere that has shown support for ‘Boycott’ and spread the word. We thank Ahirudin Atan a.ka. Rocky who is pro-tem president of the National Alliance of Bloggers, Jeff Ooi, All-Blogs’ pro-tem deputy president, the highly influential Raja Petra Kamarudin, Anil Netto, Lulu and  many others.

The youngest member of Hartal, Nanda Kumar, is a ‘citizen journalist’ – he has his day job in an entirely different field – who reported on the MIC drama enacted at the Cheras badminton stadium mentioned in my introduction. Hartal’s racial composition is evenly balanced, auguring well for the creation of a concerned Bangsa Malaysia online community.

It is this urgent need to take our country back that has prompted regular Joes, who are not into politicking but are political nonetheless (in an all-encompassing ‘social responsibility’ sense of the word), to commit to activism … for many of us, our first foray.

Some of the most memorable moments in our 28 January 2008 press conference benefited from committee member Chew Hon Keong’s career experience and expertise as a former general manager. He will be instrumental in putting across Stage 2 of ‘Boycott’ when we outreach to advertisers to persuade them to be more responsible corporate citizens, and to choose the medium of their product marketing more judiciously.

Finally, what is novel is how cyberspace (along with digital technology) has become the avenue for civil society expression, engendering a previously unmatched fluidity in communication. The Net’s innovative nature is such that we have bright sparks contributing out-of-the-box thinking in People’s Parliament. It is this dynamism of the human mind and human will that poses the challenge to Malaysia’s entrenched status quo.

Read the ‘Boycott the Newspapers!’ petition. Please help us get the numbers so that we have more leverage for lobbying.

Helen Ang is an online media columnist and cyber activist.

First published in Aliran Monthly on 03 March 2008

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