Ahead of Malaysia’s elections today, independent online media say they are being targeted in internet attacks which filter content and throttle access to websites, threatening to deprive voters of their main source of independent reporting.

Independent online news sites have emerged in recent years to challenge the dominance of mostly government-linked traditional media. The Government denies any attempts to hobble access to the internet in the run-up to a close-fought election.

“During the 2008 election we were wiped off the internet,” said Premesh Chandran, CEO of independent online news provider Malaysiakini.

“Our concern is that we’ll see a repeat of that on May 5. Can we really live without independent media on election night, given that both sides might not accept the result?”

Malaysiakini was set up in the late 1990s to test the Government’s push to lure technology companies to the country by promising not to censor the internet.

Other news websites have followed, including The Malaysian Insider, which set up shop down the street from Malaysiakini in 2008.

Such websites have emerged as an important source of news to counter the traditional media, most of which are owned by interests linked to the ruling Barisan Nasional or BN coalition.

The BN’s dominance of media is one of its crucial advantages as it fends off an increas-ingly potent opposition that made impressive election gains in 2008.

Today’s election is expected to be the closest yet, though Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is favoured to win.

Leading opposition politicians who attract big campaign crowds in cities say they get a much cooler reception in rural areas, where access to the internet is rarer.

Malaysia ranked 145th on a list of 179 countries in this year’s World Press Freedom report released by Reporters Without Borders. It was Malaysia’s lowest ever ranking.

A survey released by the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia campus and Malaysia’s Centre for Independent Journalism found that online media gave almost equal coverage to the opposition and government parties, while traditional media focused on the ruling coalition and its parties “by a significant margin”.

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