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?].