Democracy Protests Go Ahead Despite Obstacles
Tens of thousands of Malaysians marched to the Sultan's National Palace on 10 November in Kuala Lumpur calling for electoral reforms, despite police beatings, government censorship of the march in the mainstream media, and heavy rain, reports the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) and its local partner, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ).
The local media - largely controlled by the government through ownership and restrictive laws - had been ordered to report only the government's views and to refrain from giving positive coverage to the rare display of opposition, says CIJ.
The organiser, the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, says 40,000 people clad in yellow flooded the city streets. Yet mainstream media sources only quoted the official number of 4,000 and failed to publish any pictures.
Rally participants, including an Al Jazeera journalist on duty, reported that riot police aimed jets of chemical-laced water at hundreds of people near Jamek Mosque and tear-gassed them. But mainstream media reports denied - or justified - police clashes with protesters, say SEAPA and CIJ.
Protesters turned to text messaging, blogs and websites, such as independent online daily Malaysiakini.com and popular sites YouTube and Facebook, to document their story.
"The attempts in the media to brush off the largest public rally in recent years are reflective of the government's lack of respect for the public's freedom of expression and the right to know," says CIJ. "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."
The organisers, a coalition of 67 civil society groups and five opposition parties, came together to protest a flawed electoral system that has resulted in a one-party state since 1957 and legislative representations that are grossly disproportionate to the popular vote. Some of their demands included cleaning up the electoral roll, abolishing postal voting, and giving opposition parties fair access to the media.
It was not the first time that calls for changes to the electoral system triggered violence. A public talk on electoral reforms scheduled for 9 September in the northeastern state of Terengganu could not begin after police shot into the crowd, injuring two people, reports SEAPA. A journalist from opposition Internet broadcaster TV PAS was arrested, along with 22 others in the following weeks.