Malaysia is a tough place to run a news company. Traditional print and broadcast media are censored and closely held by the elite. Outside the main cities, digital infrastructure is sporadic. Significant geographic barriers limit reporting from remote communities. As a result, religious and ethnic minorities are often marginalized and voiceless.
It is also a nation where an loophole exists that allows unfettered Internet reporting.
Enter Malaysiakini, a dynamic and influential news organization based in Kuala Lumpur that specializes in jumping through that loophole. Founded in 1999 by Steven Gan and current CEO Premesh (“Prem”) Chandran, its news is distributed solely through digital channels.
Fast and independent, this subscription-based website is consistently supportive of justice, human rights, democracy, and speech freedoms. The company is committed to developing community-based reporting and increasing the level of dialogue on substantial issues.
Although Malaysiakini’s main product is its website – which now delivers more than 37 million page views to 1.6 million unique visitors each month – its executives are aggressive about finding other distribution channels.
“Many Malaysians lack regular access to the Internet,” says founder Premesh. “We wanted to identify two things: how to get more local news, and how to get more news to more people.”
These simple questions framed exciting experiments in how the company is gathering and reporting news, as well as fledgling tests of alternative distribution channels.
The Development of Citizen Journalists and CJ.my: Increasing local reporting
One clear fact about the economics of new media is this: web economics do not currently support large media organizations or high payrolls.
Thus, as Malaysiakini sought to expand local reporting, its executives knew they could not hire a nationwide team of reporters. Instead, they developed a sophisticated program to train and empower citizen journalists (CJs) and to provide them with technology tools. Beginning in October 2008, the company recruited and trained more than 175 CJs from throughout the country; this team of committed amateurs was schooled in reporting techniques, storytelling, and video recording. Those from the most remote regions of Sarawak were provided with Flip video cameras; they returned home ready to report.
To date, these reporters have produced almost 700 videos, and nearly half are writing blogs. These are featured on the citizen journalists’ own website, CJ.my, which is linked-to on Malaysiakini’s main page. Unlike You Tube, which puts a 10-minute time limit on videos, this site allows longer and in-depth pieces to be viewed. Sharing is encouraged - using tools on the site, CJ.my viewers can tweet about stories and forward content to friends on Facebook.
Creating Distribution Channels
Once produced, viewers get access to the stories in a number of ways. Malaysiakini has innovated in this area, too. They use both high and low tech ways to reach viewers.
“Media organizations have to be cognizant of distribution issues,” says CEO Chandran. “There is no point in producing content if there isn’t strong distribution.”
One lower-tech approach in the works is the creation of a DVD series to reach people who have televisions or computers, but who lack Internet access. Organized topically, these DVDs will offer a range of stories and viewpoints on current issues. Inexpensive to produce, plans are that they will be sold through the same distribution channels as pirated movies.
“While we’re happy to make some money off of this, we don’t really care if the vendors then pirate the DVDs and sell them on their own,” says Chandran. “We want as many people as possible to have access to the content.”
Long-term, though, Chandran believes there needs to be faster and more ubiquitous distribution channels. There are very few countries in the world where bandwidth is so prevalent that is can be used freely, and Malaysia is not one of them. Bandwidth is very narrow. This single issue, the lack of bandwidth, directly constrains the number of people who have access to Malaysiakini’s independent reporting.
Malaysiakini is testing two different technologies that may offer solutions: a wireless mesh network (WMN) that will support community television, and a peer-to-peer sharing of news and videos.
Community Television/Wireless Mesh Network (WMN):
Malaysiakini wanted to find an inexpensive method of creating Internet connectivity over which it could distribute local television programs in targeted apartment communities. The solution? Send programming over a wireless mesh network (WMN) to in-home set-top boxes connected to televisions.
To create the necessary bandwidth for the project, the Malaysiakini team began WMN.
The difference between a wireless mesh network and a regular wireless network is how they connect to the Internet. In a traditional wireless network, each access point requires a hard wired network connection. For example, within a home at least one computer would be wired to the Internet in order for its connection to be shared wirelessly with others through a router.
In developing countries, where wired Internet access is extremely limited, this requirement makes it virtually impossible to rapidly increase Internet penetration.
Instead, a wireless mesh network provides “tether-less access.”
It is comprised of multiple radio nodes installed on buildings that work together to create a radio network. Rather than wiring every room and building, the network requires that only one or more computers are directly connected to the Internet. The network connection is spread out among wireless mesh nodes that talk to each other. Those nodes then share the connection wirelessly with the nodes closest to them. The more nodes, the further the connection spreads (and the faster the network performs) creating a wireless "cloud of connectivity" that can serve a small office or large community.
These systems are easy to deploy. Because of that, WMNs are used in a wide range of circumstances, including battlefield surveillance, in emergency situations, and in physical environments that are difficult to wire - like tunnels, oil rigs, and boat communities. They are often used to provide Internet access in college dorms, apartment complexes and large institutions.
Another benefit of WMNs that Malaysiakini valued: when one part stops working, the whole network doesn’t stop. Instead, when one node no longer operates, the others keep communicating – the network is, in a sense, self-healing. This is one more way the WMN makes it difficult to censor or block stories passed through it channels.
Malaysiakini selected a WMN produced by Meraki, Inc. for its test. With that identified the team then focused on finding the best set-top box. They decided to work with Malaysia-based Syabas Technology which was known for producing “Popcorn Hour,” an award-winning set top box.
Peer-to-Peer (P2P) Sharing of News and Streamed Video
Malaysiakini also experimented with using P2P streaming technology to expand the reach of Internet television (specifically, community television). At issue: as mentioned earlier, bandwidth in Malaysia is extremely narrow. Sending videos and television-type content across the Internet is slow and frequently encounters buffering issues.
Malaysiakini sought ways to allow a large number of users to view videos – produced either by the Malaysiakini team or citizen journalists – without over-burdening the streaming servers.
They explored a number of options.
Reports from China of people sharing self-generated content and passing news stories seamlessly through cell phones intrigued the Malaysiakini team. Cell phone penetration is high in many parts of Malaysia: could cell-based P2P streaming work here, too?
Sadly, the answer was no. P2P sharing was only possible on the web; the telecommunications companies exert tight control and don’t allow P2P networks to run on phones. Apparently technologies exist in China that allow this, but they could not be purchased in Malaysia.
Next, the Malaysiakini team experimented with torrent technologies like BitTorrent. It’s a way of taking the pressure off streaming servers by dividing the task of distributing content among many networked computers. Each computer handles a small part of the job, increasing the speed of distribution by sending smaller pieces of data through multiple computers. It’s a much more efficient way of using available bandwidth.
However, the ISPs throttled their connections, making the process extremely slow. This, too, would not be a solution to the problem.
Finally, when they weren’t able to buy or adapt existing technology, Malaysiakini tried to build it. They hired a Chinese graduate student studying Information Technology in Malaysia to work on the project. He researched the P2P technologies used in China and worldwide.
Working with a Malaysian technology expert, he engineered a local solution. The goal: to bring together torrent-like technologies with streaming technologies for a better P2P video experience.
The result was Neptune, a detailed framework for the system. Each step of the process was mapped out and detailed – the requirements, system architecture, software specifications and specific units that would need to be built.
Unfortunately, the cost to implement the plan exceeded budget. Malaysiakini concluded that to proceed, they would need a higher level of software and network engineering. Ever resourceful, they have contacted a Malaysian university to enlist the help of PhD candidates in efforts to develop new P2P streaming applications.
High Tech and No Tech – Getting News Out of the Interior
Recording the stories is one thing; getting them back to Malaysiakini is another.
In areas where CJs have good Internet access, they simply upload their own stories.
For CJs living in the remote rural communities of Sarawak (East Malaysia on the island of Borneo), most have limited access to electricity, roads, transportation, or telephones. Internet access is unknown.
Yet reporting on these populations, and the human rights issues they face, is a priority for Malaysiakini.
To date, it has recruited 8 CJs from three areas in Sarawak.
Five live along the river banks in Upper and Middle Baram. They belong to a community known as the Penan, a formerly nomadic aboriginal group of hunter – gatherers. While the Penan have been settled for the last 50 years, they still exist at a subsistence level. They often lack access to the basics: clean water, electricity, education, jobs, and security. Although they are clearly an indigenous population, most have been systematically denied citizenship.
Three additional CJs were recruited from the Bidayuh population, another impoverished indigenous group from southern Sarawak.
These communities exist far from easy scrutiny. Rampant illegal logging and land encroachment plague them; the destruction of vast tracts of land has eradicated many of the group’s food and income sources. All of this has been done with impunity since both the government’s systematic discrimination against the Penan, and its failure to prevent land abuse, have been invisible to the world.
After recruiting CJs from both populations, they trained them. Three sessions were held in Sarawak; the first was at Kuching, the state capital, and subsequent trainings were in different villages.
The CJs were taught the basics of reporting ... and they were given Flip cameras. This simple but enormously empowering piece of technology was pivotal in bringing their stories to light.
To date, the eight CJs have collectively produced 23 reports. While it may seem like a small number, it is remarkable they have produced any at all. Without roads, cars, transportation, electricity or access to the Internet, recording and sharing their stories is tough.
When the CJs were issued their Flips, they were also given a stockpile of AA batteries. Without them, there was no way for the CJs to charge their devices. And, since there is no mechanism for uploading videos from the villages, the entire camera has to be returned to Malaysiakini each time a video is completed.
It is not an easy journey back to Kuala Lumpur. These communities define the word "remote."
The only access to the Penan is via the Baram River or along logging roads and jungle paths. Car transportation is prohibitively expensive for members of these impoverished communities: a 50 mile ride in a four wheel drive costs around RM 600.00 (USD $180).
Thus the cameras are walked out of the jungles by volunteers. The Penan CJs wait until someone from a nearby village is headed to lower Baram and they send the camera back with him. The walk from the jungle to Lower Baram takes from two to three weeks. A “railroad” of volunteers passes the camera hand to hand until it reaches Malaysiakini – often involving as many as six different couriers and taking 30 days before reaching an editor.
Once at Malaysiakini the footage is edited and uploaded, the camera checked, the batteries restocked ... and then the camera is handed off and it takes the same long journey home.
It is slightly faster getting videos from the Bidayuh reporters; the journey takes a week or two. Accessible only by foot, the volunteers who carry the cameras cross four ranges of high, dense jungle hills before getting to a location where they can be sent on to Kuala Lumpur.