Malaysia’s struggle for clean and fair elections in the Bersih 3.0 rally has been fought in the streets, but there is also an important battle occurring in the media reporting of the event. Control over how the story is reported is clearly seen as crucial to the Malaysian government, considering the censorship measures they have undertaken in the past week.
One of Bersih’s five key demands is for the government to develop a free and fair access to media. The current media situation in Malaysiasees the government control the mainstream newspapers and television stations and self-censorship become a common practice for mainstream journalists. This was further supported by the annual press freedom survey conducted by Freedom House released this week, with Malaysia ranked 144 out of 192 countries, and once again rated “Not Free”.
The Malaysian government has a long history of controlling the press and arresting journalists, but the specific attacks on journalists at the Bersih 3.0 rally, with many having their equipment confiscated by police, shows the deterioration of the government’s view of the role of a free press. This action was condemned by media freedom groups, including the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) and Charter 200-Aliran, but Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said the confiscation of memory cards and cameras belonging to journalists was “standard operating procedure”.
Rumours surfaced that editors of the mainstream media were told that they should not report on incidents of police brutality. Indeed, the result in the mainstream media was predictable. For example, the New Straits Times article on 1 May was carried the headline: “IGP: Tear gas used as last resort”, while Utusan Malaysia’s headline on the same day was: “Rempuh polis: Pas berbohong’ [‘Police stampede: A Pas (opposition party) lie?].
Censorship of some media company’s final product was also evident. A YouTube clip of the censorship of BBC’s story of the violent clashes through Astro Malaysia is one example of this blatant government control.
Examining this clip, it was the footage of ordinary Malaysians who attended the rally that was not aired, their voices shut out by censors. It included protester Chakra Vati, who said: “I’m here to see that we have free and fair elections, that’s all”.
This is all evidence that the government sees the battle for popular support of Bersih’s demands will be won and lost in the media. If the government limits the information behind the reasons for the rally, or distorts the reports of the subsequent violence as started by ‘troublemakers’, then Bersih’s message becomes radical and an attempt to destabilise the Malaysian nation-state.
Through more independent online news sources, youtube clips, bloggers, social media, and of course word of mouth, the real story of Bersih 3.0 can still surface. But what will be crucial for Bersih is whether the recent censorship and blatant government influences over the media galvanise a large number of Malaysians to reject the mainstream media’s coverage of Malaysian politics and society. An increasing majority of Malaysians may yet believe that they deserve to live in a more independent media environment.
Dr Ross Tapsell is a Lecturer in Asian Studies in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. His research focuses on press freedom in Southeast Asia.