16 February, 2008

Malaysian police break up protest, detain its supporters!

Malaysian security forces have used tear gas and water cannon to break up a protest by ethnic Indians in the capital, Kuala Lumpur.

More than 20 people taking part in the banned march were detained by police.

The demonstration was organised by the Hindu Rights Action Force, which is demanding the release from jail of five of its leaders.

Activists say policies granting economic advantages to the ethnic Malay majority discriminate against Indians.

The Malaysia government has rejected claims of unequal treatment.

Detention without trial

Some 2000 protesters defied a ban on public gatherings, and carried roses to symbolise what they said was a peaceful demand for justice.

A heavy police presence kept them in the city centre - preventing their planned march to parliament to give the flowers to the Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi.

The protest was meant to be led by a group of about 200 children. There were no reports of any children being injured.

Police used water canons thought to be laced with chemicals and tear gas to disperse the crowd.

The group behind the demonstration has become increasingly effective at rattling the government, says the BBC's Robin Brant in Kuala Lumpur.

It was behind a large demonstration on the streets of the capital last November which saw 10,000 people gather.

That rally exposed increasing unhappiness among some of Malaysia's minority Indians who feel they have fallen behind after decades of government policy which gives preferential treatment to the majority Malays.

Five rights activists were arrested at that rally - the biggest protest involving ethnic Indians in more than a decade.

They are being held under a rarely used security law that allows indefinite detention without trial.

The non-governmental Hindu Rights Force (Hindraf) which organised the "illegal" rally, days after announcing plans that its members would march to the Parliament house along with a group of children led by the organisation's chief Wayathamoorthy's five-year-old daughter Vvaishnnavi.

Hindraf member and lawyer N Surendran, however, claimed that at least 60 people, including two leaders of the organisation, have been detained in a police crackdown since late Friday night.

Notwithstanding the ban, some 200 people managed to gather at a nearby building shouting "Long Live Hindraf" and "We want our rights." Police sprayed chemical-laced water and tear gas to disperse the crowd.

Vvaishnnavi wanted to present roses to Premier Abdullah Badawi and had last month written a letter to him urging him to be present at the Parliament house to receive the Valentine flowers from her and other children.

The letter also contained an appeal to release Vvaishnnavi's "five uncles", members of Hindraf who were detained under the Internal Security Act after they organised a massive rally of over 20,000 Indians against the alleged marginalisation of
the community on November 25 last year. Hindraf hit headlines across the world after organising that rally.

Today's rally came ahead of general elections on March 8, a year ahead of schedule. The government has denied allegations of marginalisation of Indians. However, the November 25 rally took it by total surprise and since then the government leaders have been busy wooing ethnic Indians and promising to seriously look into their woes.

Police detained two opposition activists who protested outside the national palace yesterday (Friday)to voice fears that the March 8 general elections would be rigged by the government.

Tian Chua, the information chief of the People's Justice Party, was taken into custody when he tried to address about 30 people after handing palace officials a protest note. An unidentified supporter was also detained, said opposition official Syed Azman Syed Ahmad Nawawi.

The note urged Malaysia's constitutional monarch to look into the opposition parties' concerns that the elections would be rigged by the government, a claim regularly made before elections.


Meanwhile, Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), Writers Alliance for Media Independence (WAMI), Charter 2000-Aliran and Civil Society Initiative
for Parliamentary Reform (CSI-Parliament) call on Malaysians to vote
wisely in the coming elections and to ensure that they vote in
individuals with integrity to represent them in Parliament.

"Candidates should be committed to freedom of expression and information"

PASSIVITY OF MALAYSIAN MINDS MUST STOP

Barisan Nasional, which has been in power for half a century, has
entrenched and strengthened formal and informal controls over the
media which has left citizens uninformed of important political,
socio-economic and health developments. Such controls have resulted in
the closing of Malaysian minds.

In the run-up to the 12th general elections, CIJ, WAMI, Charter
2000-Aliran and CSI-Parliament note the declining levels of press
freedom and restricted access to information. In 2007, CIJ documented
more than 60 cases of editorial interference and legal threats against
the media; intimidation against bloggers; clampdown of assemblies; and
other violations.

1. Political pressure on the media
Excessive media restrictions have cowed the mainstream media into
becoming a mouthpiece of the Barisan Nasional government. Regular
warnings and instructions from the Internal Security Ministry to
newspaper editors constitute direct governmental interference with
editorial decisions and prevent the media from reporting issues of
public interest. Such interference means that the public is not given
the full story or is kept in the dark about important debates and
issues, among them differing views on freedom of religion, the New
Economic Policy, education and health issues. The media's hands are
tied because of various laws, in particular the Printing Presses and
Publications Act that gives absolute powers to the Minister to decide
on the issuance of annual publication permits for newspapers and
magazines.

2. Concentration of media ownership
Another negative development is the trend in media ownership, with
media companies coming under the control of a small number of
politically connected companies or individuals. Two changes in the
past year are extremely alarming. First was the merger of Nanyang
Press, Sin Chew and Ming Pao (Hong Kong) that sealed the emergence of
the Media Chinese International Limited, making the Chinese daily
market even less competitive. Second, majority control of the
relatively independent newspaper - the Sun – was taken over by the
BN-connected tycoon Tan Sri Vincent Tan. That this occurred just
before the general elections signals that election reporting may be
even more one-sided than in the previous elections.

3. Threats against journalists
Journalists have faced physical threats from individuals and party
members while covering the general and by elections. In the Ijok and
Machap by-elections, for example, journalists from Makkal Osai and
Malaysian Nanban were manhandled and shoved by individuals linked to
the MIC. Journalists have also been recalled to the headquarters due
to pressure from political parties, in particular those comprising the
Barisan Nasional. This is a serious threat against journalists'
integrity and undermines their commitment to ethical public interest
reporting.

4. Professional journalism in jeopardy
The coverage of public interest issues has exposed the lack of
professionalism among some sections of the media, where facts are
compromised, issues and events deliberately ignored, and misreporting
and misinformation are seen with unfortunate regularity. This
situation is a result of the lack of market competition and the
concentration of media ownership in the hand of political and
corporate interests. It manifests itself in the shrinking areas of
what can be covered by the media. The reporting of the BERSIH and
HINDRAF rallies in November 2007 are clear examples of misreporting
and lack of professional rigour among editors.

CHANGES THROUGH THE BALLOT BOX

A fair, balanced and independent media is an important basis for a
democracy. The period of elections constitutes an especially crucial
time of test for the media.

CIJ, WAMI, Charter 2000-Aliran and CSI-Parliament calls for good
journalism and free and fair media access to all parties and
candidates. There can be no free and fair elections without a free
press. Denied a free media, voters are effectively denied their right
to make an informed choice. Unfortunately, due to the control by the
Barisan Nasional parties over the mainstream media, coverage during
the elections is lopsided and generally unfair to other parties.
Academic research and civil society monitoring of the media during the
elections have consistently revealed serious bias in favour of the
Barisan Nasional.

We urge the journalists to exercise their ethical and professional
standards and commitments to live up to their democratic role as the
state's watchdog, and not its lapdog. We also urge the caretaker
government and media owners to practise a hands-off policy for the
journalists to report what they see fit. Journalists, media owners and
the caretaker government can do more harm to the elections and
democracy than phantom voters.

CIJ, WAMI, Charter 2000-Aliran and CSI-Parliament urge voters to bring
about media laws reform through the ballot box. We reject completely
the Barisan Nasional's argument that media freedom and diversity
threaten political stability, economic growth and social harmony. Free
flows of ideas and information are the fundamental basis for political
accountability, economic prudence and social cohesion.

We are also critical of two misperceptions held and spread by certain
opposition politicians that media freedom is a single issue that
voters do not care about and that opposition parties cannot do
anything until they win power at the federal level. If the public
fails to see the importance of media freedom with all the political
scandals, economic mismanagement and social unrest, the opposition is
partially responsible for the failure articulate the importance of
media freedom. Even in the absence of executive power, elected
representatives can push for law reforms through mechanisms like
private member bills and select committee sittings. Finally, advancing
freedom of information can be done not only at the federal level, but
also at the state level. Opposition parties aiming to win state power
and candidates vying for state seats must not evade their
responsibility promote and uphold transparency and accountability.

We hereby call for:

Media
1.The media to provide fair access and coverage to all parties in the
elections.
2.The media to provide honest and truthful coverage of issues and
statements.
3.Journalists to be granted the freedom to work without undue pressure
placed on them by the publishers and external parties.
4.All parties and individuals to respect the safety of journalists
including photographers.

Caretaker government
1.The caretaker government to refrain from manipulating the media to
serve its interests.

Election Commission
1.The Election Commission to call upon the RTM to organise televised
election debates and allocate fair air time in its radio and
television channels for the leaders of all political parties.

Parties and Candidates
1.Parties and candidates to pledge to and advocate for in their
campaigns (i) freedom of expression; (b) freedom of information; and
(iii) greater diversity and plurality in media ownership and content.
2.Elected Parliamentarians to put forward a motion for a Parliamentary
Select Committee on Media Laws Reform or to form a Multiparty Caucus
on Media Laws Reform to review laws on access to information and
freedom of expression.
3.Within the first year of their election, elected Parliamentarians
and state assembly persons to table their private members' bill for a
Freedom of Information Act/Enactment, after consultation with civil
society organizations, in the absence of a government bill tabled by
the Federal/State government.

Electorate
1.The electorate to gather information from all possible sources to
avoid falling victim to spin-doctoring and media control.
2.The electorate to vote for parties that are committed to freedom of
expression, freedom of information, and a diverse and competitive
media environment.
3.The electorate to demand that candidates make a concrete commitment
to media law reforms and freedom of information laws, and to vote for
those who do so.

CIJ is a not-for-profit organisation that aspires for a society that
is democratic, just and free, where all people enjoy free media and
the freedom to express, seek, and impart information.

WAMI, formed 11 days after the MCA took over Nanyang Siang Pau on 28
May 2001, advocates freedom of expression, freedom of information, and
a competitive environment where diverse journalists and media
organizations may operate independently and professionally.

Charter 2000-Aliran is a citizen's media initiative to advance the
cause of media freedom through the promotion of a media charter to
raise public awareness.

CSI-Parliament is a group of individuals from civil society to act as
a catalytic agent for parliamentary reform and to enhance the standard
of politics and governance in Malaysia.

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