IT’S been all about Bersih 3.0 this past week. Stories, tweets, photographs and videos have been shared. Fingers pointed, heroes praised, villains demonised. Yet, important questions remain despite the numerous articles in the traditional media. For instance, if there were numerous reports in the traditional media about one of the most historic moments in Malaysia’s political development, why is it that anybody reading just the national print media would be left with an incomplete picture?
Did the Malaysian press perform its role in informing the public of Bersih 3.0 and the events surrounding the movement? And what can we surmise about the state of the Malaysian media from its coverage of the 28 April 2012 Bersih 3.0 rally?
One major fact about the demonstration calling for free and fair elections was that it was huge. Looking at rally pictures, it was likely the biggest demonstration in Malaysian history. Bersih 2.0 organisers estimate about 300,000 joined the rally in Kuala Lumpur, with thousands of others gathering in various other local and foreign cities. While it’s hard to be exact about these numbers, and the rally organisers would have a vested interest in enlarging them, anecdotal and visual evidence tell us that the crowd was impressively huge and cohesive.
Yet, amazingly, the morning after the rally, The Star was silent on how many had turned up. Although it dedicated five full pages to Bersih 3.0 reports, the national paper made no mention or estimate of the historical numbers of citizens who demonstrated.
The New Straits Times and Utusan Malaysia chose to quote Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, who put the number at 20,000. This number is just implausible if the visual evidence from various parts of the city is anything to go by. This only leads us to wonder whether our politicians – and a senior cabinet minister, no less – and some national newspapers are being deliberately obtuse on just how much support Bersih garnered.
To theSun’s credit, it published a more believable number, estimating the crowd to be around 80,000.
This was a first – journalists on duty in Malaysia being systematically attacked by police. A joint statement by media non-governmental organisations counted at least a dozen such instances. Police not only roughed up working journalists – some more seriously than others – they also threatened arrest and in some instances detained them. On top of that, they also reportedly confiscated cameras and memory cards or demanded for photographs to be deleted.
And yet, neither The Star nor the New Straits Times reported on these targeted attacks on 29 April 2012. Two of the 12 instances of police attacks on the media involved photojournalists from The Star, but the paper only ran an article about it two days after the event. The story was buried on page 10.
In a 29 April 2012 article headlined Petugas media turut jadi mangsa penyokong Bersih, Utusan Malaysia reported on the protesters’ attack of Al-Hijrah journalist Mohd Azri Mohd Salleh. The article also included a photograph of The Malay Mail photojournalist Muhamad Arif Kartono, who was assaulted.
Muhamad Arif, however, was beaten up by several police officers, not the demonstrators. And yet, in reporting about his experience in the report’s last paragraph, Utusan Malaysia makes no mention that Muhamad Arif was attacked by the police. This is curious since the information was already publicly available when The Malay Mail managing editor Terence Fernandez tweeted about it at 4.24pm on 28 Apr 2012. And indeed, by leaving out this critical bit of information, it would seem that Muhamad Arif suffered at the hands of demonstrators just like Mohd Azri did.
Again to its credit, theSun prominently featured police attacks on journalists. An assault against its journalist Mohd Radzi Abdul Razak front-paged the newspaper on Monday, 30 Apr 2012 (theSun does not publish on weekends). The report detailed the assault that was unprovoked, and which continued even after Radzi had identified himself as a journalist. The paper also carried the media NGOs’ joint statement and the National Union of Journalists’ statement on page two.
Just as in Bersih 2.0, allegations of police brutality against protesters at Bersih 3.0 have arisen. Protesters have spoken of police beating, kicking, slapping and taunting them, and making them remove their Bersih T-shirts.
On 29 April, New Straits Times and The Star reported that 63 protesters and two police officers sought treatment at Kuala Lumpur Hospital. The Star reported that 63 were treated for trauma created by injuries, while New Straits Times said seven were warded for breathing difficulties and fatigue. There were, however, no accompanying reports on how protesters sustained these injuries.
Bersih 3.0 saw protesters throwing objects at police vehicles, a police car being overturned, and police suffering injuries.
Contrary to police violence against the mostly peaceful demonstrators, violence against police was well-documented in The Star, New Straits Times and Utusan Malaysia. The photo of injured officer, Constable Mohd Kamil Paimin, appeared on the front pages of all three newspapers on 30 April 2012.
What is the impact of foregrounding those who suffered violence at the hands of protesters and downplaying, even blacking out, the victims of police violence? By doing so, the media send a loud message about what kind of violence is deemed permissible and what is reprehensible.
Important questions also need to be asked and answered following Bersih 3.0. They are as follows:
On the right to peaceful assembly
Should this right be subjugated to the discretion of the Kuala Lumpur mayor under a local government by-law? Should the mayor have the right to allow a large corporation like Nestle to utilise Dataran Merdeka, while denying Malaysian citizens, who want free and fair elections, its use?
On police action
When can police fire tear gas at a crowd? Did their actions endanger the lives of protesters that day by boxing them in? Were they justified in firing tear gas once protesters breached the barricades up on Jalan Raja? Is it time to revive discussions on the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission?
On violent protesters
How did this occur in what was mostly a peaceful rally? Who were they? Will they be charged?
Will the government take heed of the scores of thousands who protested on 28 April? Will further changes be made to the electoral system to make it more transparent and fair?
These are critical issues the media needs to ask. And by virtue of the fact that the media is the fourth estate, it should be leading and framing these discussions in the public’s interest. Sadly, many of the print media have failed to play this role.
Devious and dishonest
The limitations of the Malaysian print media are well known. Most are owned by political parties and stand to lose their licence if they displease the Home Ministry, amendments to the Printing Presses and Publications Act notwithstanding.
But to hide the massive numbers at Bersih 3.0, omit or downplay police brutality against journalists and the public, and refuse to ask important questions after the event is just devious and dishonest. It makes one wonder how much pressure newsrooms must be under at the moment, whether from the Home Ministry or political owners.
Sure, a newspaper can have ideological or political leanings. After the 2011 London riots, for example, The Guardian ran features on how poverty, inequalities and societal dysfunction could have contributed to the riots, perhaps reflecting their traditionally left-leaning views. But these views did not stop the newspaper from reporting on the extent of the mob’s violence and looting or lead the national paper to hide facts in order to cast the mob in a sympathetic light.
In Malaysia, someone would probably have to read four newspapers of different languages, three online news sites and two blogs, and scan their Twitter feed to get a comprehensive idea of what happened during Bersih 3.0. And with the factual distortions demonstrated by the New Straits Times and Astro’s censorship of BBC and Al-Jazeera reports on Bersih 3.0, can any Malaysian trust what they read, watch and listen to in the traditional print and broadcast media in Malaysia?
This makes a mockery of the Barisan Nasional government’s so-called press reforms and demonstrates how badly the national media has failed Malaysians. And if the national media are already skewing the news now, imagine how much worse it will be when the elections are called. This brings us back to Bersih 2.0 and its demand for free and fair access to the media as one of the conditions that will ensure a clean election. With the evidence in hand, it’s hard not to support the movement’s demands.
Ding Jo-Ann is the media monitor at the Centre for Independent Journalism, Malaysia and has monitored media coverage of both Bersih 2.0 and Bersih 3.0. She is also the co-author of CIJ’s Freedom of Expression 2011 report, which will be launched this month.