Stories about media in tiny Brunei don’t make the news. That’s why you should read about what The Scoop is trying to achieve.

Staffers from the defunct Brunei Times, burned by censorship at the paper, say they’ve found a better way of reporting the news in the sultanate.

By Erin Cook
Splice Indonesia

The sudden demise of the Brunei Times a year ago heralded a new era of media repression in the tightly controlled sultanate. Now, a group of former staffers is breathing life back into the industry with a fresh news and culture site.

Launched in September, The Scoop was initially conceived as a “soft news platform”, according former Brunei Times reporter turned Scoop co-founder and editor Ain Bandial, but has evolved quickly as the content finds its natural audience.

“It started out focusing on people-driven narratives,” she says. “We’ve adapted our coverage to include more hard news, as there is definitely a hunger for that—news from experienced journalists delivered quickly to social media.”

On 7 November last year, the Brunei Times, the tiny country’s best-known English-language daily, carried a short note on its front page informing readers that it would cease operations the following day.

Management blamed the closure on “issues relating to business sustainability, especially in the face of considerable challenges from alternative media”, saying the paper had been running at a loss for its decade-long history.

But it followed a now-retracted article on 26 October critical of a rise in visa prices for Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages to Mecca, pointing to economic woes in Saudi Arabia and prompting a backlash from the Kingdom.

A labour of love

Bandial says The Scoop isn’t trying to replicate the Brunei Times model, or compete against the remaining English-language daily, the Borneo Bulletin. Instead, she and her co-founders Hadthiah Hazair, Rachel Thien and Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar are aiming to deliver something totally new to Brunei.

“While we do want to cover hard news issues, our approach is more through a features lens, aspiring to cover the news in the way the Atlantic or the New Yorker does—thoughtful, in-depth narratives that provide more insight and context to what’s actually going on in Brunei,” she says.

In particular, The Scoop is targeting an audience of “actively engaged millennials”, according to Bandial.

“Metrics show 70 percent of our readers are between ages 24 to 35.”

The project is a labour of love, with a sleek website built by the co-founders for just $1,700 and launched within six weeks of coming up with the idea, but the team has big goals for the future, with hopes of becoming a leading media organisation.

“In terms of monetisation, we do media consultancy and content creation for corporate clients, whether it’s writing articles and producing videos for their websites, magazines, or coffee table books,” Bandial says, adding that advertising packages will be launched soon to fund the news operation.

The Scoop website
The Scoop website

Self-censorship a burden in Brunei

Media in Brunei operates under the close watch of authorities, with rebukes common. But the forced closure of the Brunei Times, and the silence that followed from regional press organisations, was unprecedented.

Self-censorship has long been practiced widely in Brunei, which ranks ahead of only Laos and Vietnam in press freedom in the region. Media outlets typically avoid any story that could draw the ire of the sultanate or be accused of offending Islam.

Bandial declined to comment on self-censorship but says media diversity in Brunei—a country of about 420,000 people—remains a major challenge, with few in the oil-rich state willing to enter a

“low-profit, low prestige, labour-intensive business”.

“Since the closure of the Brunei Times, the Borneo Bulletin has a monopoly on the newspaper business as their parent company also owns the largest Malay-language paper. Without competition, there is no real impetus for innovation in media,” she says, adding that this nonetheless represents an opportunity for The Scoop.

The team has been producing snappy videos on everything from the royal family to entrepreneurship, and the website’s popular Instagram account is designed to bring bite-sized news to time-poor readers.

And while the Brunei Times is no more, the newspaper remains an inspiration to the Scoop.

“The idea came about borne out of our frustration that there were no other news outlets coming up to fill the void of the Brunei Times. We decided to self-fund instead of find an investor to maintain our editorial independence,” Bandial says.

“We really are the little engine that could.”

Erin Cook is a Jakarta-based journalist covering Asean and Southeast Asian politics. She curates the Dari Mulut ke Mulut newsletter, bringing together the top stories and best in analysis from the region every Friday. Follow Erin Cook on Twitter.

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