Reporters Without Borders condemns the use of violence against journalists during a major civil society demonstration in Kuala Lumpur on 28 April, and the censorship of foreign TV coverage of the protest. The organization is also concerned about the scant coverage that the protest received in Malaysia’s mainstream print media such as Utusan Malaysia, New Straits Times and The Star.
Called Bersih 3.0 because it was the third of its kind organized by the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (Bersih) in protest against the lack of government transparency about the next parliamentary elections, the demonstration was attended by a Reporters Without Borders representative, who witnessed the media freedom violations.
The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) said coverage of the protest highlighted the print media’s lack of independence. Their inadequate and inaccurate reporting contrasts with Malaysia’s rise in international media freedom rankings and the promise of more media freedom in recent amendments to the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA).
The media’s attitude is all the more disturbing in the run-up to such important elections, as it shows the degree to which they are still susceptible to pressure from the government and the political parties that own them.
Protest organizers and observers
The CIJ is one of the civil society organizations in the Bersih coalition, which also includes the Malaysia Youth and Students Democratic Movement and the Bar Council. The venue for its third demonstration was to have been Independence Square (Dataran Merdeka) in the centre of Kuala Lumpur. Smaller demonstrations were organized in other cities.
Bersih’s leaders had wanted to stage a sit-in (Duduk Bantah) in Independence Square from 2 to 4 p.m. but, two days before the protest, the Kuala Lumpur city authorities obtained a court order banning them from the square. On the eve of the protest, the police took up position on the main streets leading to the square, and barbed wire and plastic street barriers were used block access. Wearing the yellow Bersih T-shirt was not, however, banned this time.
On the day, a large crowd assembled at a nearby location and set off towards the square at 1:40 pm, led by Bersih members, journalists and Bar Council observers. Clashes broke out as they neared the square. When some of the demonstrators pushed past the barricades, the riot police on the other side used their water cannon, hosing them with a mixture of water and chemical irritants of the kind used in tear gas.
Violence and arrests
Police violence, attacks on demonstrators and arrests ensued. The Bar Council’s observers described the attitude of the police as “punitive.” In a statement the next day condemning the police violence as unjustified, Bar Council vice-president Christopher Leong pointed out that the interior minister had said before the demonstration that it did not pose a security threat.
As regards violence against the media, the Bar Council statement said: “The reported attacks by the police on members of the media, both local and international, and the confiscation and/or destruction of their photographs and video recordings, speaks to police action in covering up or preventing a full and accurate record of the Bersih 3.0 rally and the responses of the police.”
Al Jazeera reporter Harry Fawcett was forced to cover the protest using his iPad’s Skype app after the police damaged his crew’s camera. Describing the scenes of violence, he reported that the police “kicked, slapped and punched” demonstrators.
The Reporters Without Borders correspondent suffered no physical attack herself, but she was prevented from accessing an elevated position from which she could have taken photos of the crowd. Bar Council members, on the other hand, reported several cases of violence, including the clubbing of a lawyer inside a police truck after his arrest. A girl received several blows to the head before being rescued by a Bar Council member.
According to the CIJ, one journalist was badly hurt, sustaining a broken rib and possible internal injuries.
Merdeka Review reporter Chen Shaua Fui told Reporters Without Borders told Reporters Without Borders she was attacked by police when she tried to take photos of two demonstrators being beaten by police officers.
“Two men in yellow T-shirts were dining in a small restaurant on Jalan tun Perak Street,” she said. “It was 7 p.m. and most of the demonstrators had already dispersed. I was on the other side of the street when I saw two policemen go up to them and begin hitting them. I pulled out my camera but I was told not to use it. When I said I was a journalist, the policemen threatened me. I entered a nearby alley and saw a similar scene. I was already holding my camera and began taking photos.
“Four policemen approached me. One insulted me. Two others tried to grab my phone and camera from me. A fourth pulled violently at my backpack. They all insulted me although, in the confusion, I don’t remember what they said. I shouted several times that I was a journalist. In response, they snatched my press ID and threw it to the ground. I asked them several times if I was arrested but they did not reply to this. I think they just wanted to teach me a lesson. I finally succeeded in getting away and had the courage to pick up my press ID. I don’t think I will file a complaint. That serves no purpose here.”
Medical personnel reported that a total of 417 arrests were made and 117 people were taken to hospital.
Scant coverage, disinformation
On the whole, the violence was widely covered and commented in the alternative media and blogs even if they did not report all of the incidents.
But the CIJ reported in a press release on 26 April that coverage of protests in the print media had fallen dramatically compared with a similar period last year. Coverage of demonstrations was meagre in the leading Malaysian newspapers, and virtually non-existent in the newspapers that support the ruling coalition.
According to the CIJ release, there has been a 60 per cent fall in coverage by The Star and the Sun, and a 97 per cent fall in coverage by Utusan Malaysia and the New Straits Times. Such coverage as there was in these two newspapers was overwhelmingly negative, the release added.
Anticipating scant coverage by the main newspapers, the Bar Council mobilized around 80 lawyers and law students to monitor the demonstration. Many of these observers reported witnessing violence, including the use of tear-gas grenades and water cannon against demonstrators who had not provoked the police.
The lack of media coverage was compounded by government disinformation and attempts to minimize the size of the protest. It is not unusual for organizers and authorities to give different turnout figures but in this case only deliberate disinformation can explain the difference. On the one hand, the organizers estimated that 250,000 people took part and the CIJ estimated 100,000. On the other, the police put the turnout at 30,000 while a government press office went to so far as to claim that only 4,000 people participated.
The Sarawak Report, a news website run by investigative journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown, reported that Astro Malaysia, a satellite TV service owned MEASAT Broadcast Network Systems, censored the BBC World News’ coverage of the demonstration, eliminating more than 30 seconds of footage showing police water cannon hosing protesters and participants criticizing the government and Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak.
According to the Sarawak Report, the BBC is investigating Astro’s alleged censorship of its broadcast. Astro received the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia prize in 2009 for its contribution to pay TV in the region. The Sarawak Report said Al Jazeera’s coverage may also have been the victim of similar censorship.
The ruling Barisan Nasional coalition wants to prolong its decades-old control of the government in the general elections that must be held by April 2013. Prime Minister Najib’s party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the coalition’s dominant member, is meanwhile due to hold its annual national congress in July.
Headed by former Bar Council president Ambiga Sreenevasan, Bersih is not a political coalition. It is a campaign for electoral reform that is supported by civil society organizations and opposition parties. The authorities banned it on the eve of its first big demonstration in 2011 and its current status is unclear.