In Malaysia, misinformation about 10 November march

Thousands of Malaysians joined a peaceful rally on 10 November 2007
organised by BERSIH, the coalition of 67 civil society groups and
five opposition political parties, to demand for electoral reforms.
Despite the extensive restrictions placed by the government, the
public marched through the city, braving rain, water cannons and
tear gas, to make its point. Everyone who supported the cause as
well as those who protested it followed the developments in real
time - no thanks to the local media, but the blogs, mobile phones,
text messages, independent media, brave journalists and the foreign

Popular blogs were providing minute-by-minute updates on the rally,
police action and people's opinions on the issues raised and the
need for electoral reforms in the country.

The government, aghast at the sheer numbers, tried its best to sell
misinformation through the major local media. News peddled by the
state-controlled media were mainly skewed toward diminishing the
rally to an opposition gimmick at the expense of the issue, and
portraying the rally as a trouble-making exercise. Such unfair
reporting started before the rally as the government instructed the
local media not to cover the event; in other words - no news from
the point of view of the organisers or the public. In addition,
state-run radio and television stations in their broadcasts the day
before the rally warned people not to participate in the march or
wear yellow.

The most controversial aspect concerning the coverage has been the
number of people at the assembly and march. Official figures stated
4,000 during the march while observers and the foreign press have
placed the number between 20,000 and 40,000. Besides that, the
reporting of the riot police, Federal Reserve Unit, using water
cannons and tear gas on the public clearly showed the intent of the
government to lay the blame squarely on the people for provoking
the authorities. The police also claimed that more than 200 people
had been arrested, a figure refuted by human rights organisation
SUARAM and lawyers, who said only 34 had been arrested and most of
them released. Such discrepancies put the local media at peculiar
odds with the presence of Al-Jazeera, which ran a live report from
the scene, as well as other foreign agencies such as Reuters and
AFP, and local bloggers.

The attempts in the media to brush off the largest public rally in
recent years is reflective of the government's lack of respect for
the public's freedom of expression and the right to know. By tying
the hands of the media with legal and political tools, the
government has only tarnished its reputation as the public sees
clearly how information is distorted. The print and broadcast media
will lose their relevance because of these controls. As it stands,
they are fast overtaken by online and offline technologies like the
blogs, video sharing sites and mobile phones that disseminate
images and text from the scene to thousands of people in real time.

The next few days will continue to see attacks against the
organisers and demonstrators dominating the media. CIJ believes
that the public deserves information, not misinformation. It is
high time the government review its harsh tactics to suppress
expression, assembly and information. It should respect the
people's right to assemble and allow the media do its job
fearlessly to report the truth, and these are rights enshrined in
the Federal Constitution. CIJ also calls on the media to open
spaces for more diverse views, not just on the rally, but other
public interest issues such as their democratic and political rights.


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