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The Internet is playing a key role in a number of emerging democracies, including Malaysia. There, access to the Internet helped to break a 50-year monopoly on power by the ruling coalition.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn visited Kuala Lumpur and filed this report.

(Soundbite of protesters)

ANTHONY KUHN: Footage of a political protest is posted on Malaysiakini, or Malaysia Now, the nation's most popular news website. Its content in English, Bahasa, Chinese and Tamil attracts 300,000 visitors a day with stories that many mainstream media will not or cannot cover.

Editor Steven Gan says that Malaysiakini became a website because they couldn't get a license from the government for a print publication.

Mr. STEVEN GAN (Editor, Malaysiakini): To do print, you need to get a license from the government. And that license is redeemable every year, which put a lot of print publications on a pretty short leash. And the license is only given to people who are friendly to the government.

KUHN: Malaysiakini quickly made a name for itself by daring to write about the politics of race and religion in Malaysia, areas where Gan says few conventional media dare to tread.

Mr. GAN: We've been told time and again by the ruling coalition that all those issues are sensitive issues, it shouldn't be debated and discussed out in the open. It should be discussed behind closed doors by the ruling parties, and they will come up with solutions.

Professor AZMI SHAROM (Legal Scholar, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur): The role of the Internet in the last general elections was vital. There can be no other description for it.

KUHN: Azmi Sharom, a legal scholar at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, says that blogs were essential in helping the political opposition deprive the ruling National Front Coalition of its two-thirds majority in parliament in Malaysia's 2008 general elections.

Professor SHAROM: It was the primary method with which opposition views were distributed. It was the only method where criticism of the government could be expressed freely.

KUHN: Malaysia's online news scene owes its power to several factors. First, more than half of Malaysians have access to the Internet. Many young Malaysians are used to getting their news online and not from traditional news media. And the government has pledged not to censor the Internet.

Ironically, it was former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who had a reputation as an authoritarian, who made the pledge. Azmi Sharom says credit, though, goes to foreign investors, not to Mahathir.

Professor SHAROM: He wanted to create a cyber hub in this country; another one of his grandiose plans which I don't think has taken off. But thankfully for the rest of us, as part of his plans, he had to give in to international demands that there be no Internet censorship.

KUHN: One of the more successful critics of Malaysia's media establishment is blogger Jeff Ooi, an opposition member of parliament. Ooi says it's not being a blogger that got him elected. It's his reformist message.

(Soundbite of conversations)

Mr. JEFF OOI (Member of Parliament): Blogs have become a commodity. Now you have to brand yourself through your content and through your viewpoints of what you can do to fire the imagination of the people for change.

KUHN: In other words, the message still counts more than the medium. Besides, Ooi points out, the ruling coalition may be behind the curve, but they're learning now and building up their own contingent of online hatchet men to battle the opposition bloggers.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.

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