Malaysiakini raises $110,000 from readers to pay defamation case

A Malaysian news site has successfully crowdfunded more than S$110,000 in legal costs after losing a defamation appeal to an Australian mining company.

The independent Malaysiakini has been embroiled in a legal case with Raub Australian Gold Mining since 2012 after it ran a piece claiming its activities were harming the health of local communities living in Penang.

Although Malaysiakini originally won the case in 2016, the news site lost a subsequent appeal from the mining company and was recently ordered to pay RM200,000 in damages and RM150,000 .

Appealing to its loyal readership base, the editor Steven Gan and CEO Premesh Chandran launched a crowd-funding campaign to cover the title’s defence fund, arguing its “hand-to-mouth existence” made the costs difficult to meet.

Twelve days later, Gan and Chandran announced the target had been met. Writing in an editorial piece on the website, the pair discussed the fraught financial climate publishers were facing today.

They wrote: “Our aim for each financial year is simple – to make sure that we earn enough to cover our expenses. And we have been doing that over the past 18 years. Yes, there were good years and there were bad years. In good years, we reinvest much of our profit back into the company. In bad years, we tighten our belts.

“Our major income comes from advertising and subscriptions. However, as most online news portals have discovered, earning money from advertising is extremely tough.

“While online advertising has grown by leaps and bounds, those who benefit most from it are not content providers; they are the big technology companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft and Twitter, to name a few. Search engines alone control almost 50 percent of the market.

Editor-in-chief Steven Gan with CEO Premesh Chandran

“Websites such as Malaysiakini are competing not just with other local brands for advertising but with super companies, the likes of Google. Moreover, online advertising does not bring in the kind of top dollar that print or broadcast advertising once commanded.”

The piece added: “So, this is why we had to raise money from the public. We don’t have a contingency for such unexpected off-budget items. Our legal battles are mostly fought by lawyers who represent us pro-bono.”

In addition to the Raub case, Malaysiakini is also facing impending legal battles over its reporting with the National Feedlot Corporation (NFC), Malaysia’s attorney general and the country’s Prime Minister himself, Najib Abdul Razak, over reader comments.

Founded in 1999 as an alternative to much of Malaysia’s government-owned media, Malaysiakini has courted its fair share of controversy during its two-decade history. The organisation was famously raided by the police in 2003 following a complaint over a letter published.  

Three years ago, the news site’s office in Kuala Lumpur was vandalised with red paint and a dead duck after reporting on a political video. 

Malaysiakini is not the only South East Asia news outlet facing the challenges of fighting legal battles against financial difficulty.

Philippines-based site Rappler has also launched a crowdfunding campaign for legal cost assistance after losing its registration licence with Securities and Exchange Commission over alleged violations of foreign ownership.


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