Saturday, December 08, 2007

Media spin in Hindraf, Bersih rallies: Are there more they can do?

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Media spin in Hindraf, Bersih rallies: Are there more they can do?

In 2000, the National Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) undertook the first inquiry into alleged excessive use of police force at the public assembly at Jalan Kebun, Klang on 5 November. Its findings were straightforward: the police used excessive force. The
recommendations included the right to assemble, no road blocks to prevent people from participating in the gathering, and police restraint in controlling the crowd. The recommendations were repeated in another inquiry later for the Bloody Sunday incident on 28 May 2006 in front of KLCC at a demonstration against the increase in fuel and electricity

Important findings, but no sign at all that the authorities, namely the police, have taken on board the recommendations in handling public rallies. Take the two most recent gatherings, one organised by BERSIH to demand for free and fair elections and the other by Hindraf to garner
support for its suit against the British government for the continued marginalisation and oppression of the Indian community in Malaysia. Suhakam's recommendations, which is clear on whether violence could have been avoided through restraint on the part of the police, were never put into perspective in major media reports from the very beginning. The dominant discourse remains that these acts of expression are un-Malaysian, violent, threaten public order and jeopardies the country's image.

It is very clear that the response from the powers-that-be and the media has been very Bush-like: either you are with us, or you are the Other, unlawful citizen. Anyone monitoring the mainstream media will not miss the thread running through the stories that the rallies pit "them vs us the government".

In reporting the BERSIH rally in Batu Burok, Terengganu and then its massive gathering in Kuala Lumpur as well as the Hindraf-organised gathering on November 25, mainstream press have been linking the participants and organizers to violence and lawlessness. Admittedly,
adjectives such as "riot" and "illegal" in the media were direct quotes by state actors describing the events. The emphasis was on alleged vandalism, hooliganism, disruption of businesses and traffic congestions. Injuries sustained by police officers were emphatically highlighted, while injuries caused by police violence were quickly defended as necessary and as a last measure. The media raises serious questions of accuracy when the owner of the Sri Paandi restaurant, and
the temple committee of Batu Caves, who are the victims of violence allegedly perpetrated by the Hindraf members, denied what the media reported. But the point is that, against such a context constructed by the mainstream media, Malaysians were reminded of the need for peace and stability, which is associated with the success of the current government.

That there is only one way to look at the issue of freedom of expression and assembly in Malaysia must mean that there is something wrong with the messages and the messengers. Is it because there is a monopoly over access to free expression, which prevents other ideas and thoughts to be shared? Government leaders and certain non-governmental organisations as
well as newspaper columnists have argued that a rally is not necessary because there are other avenues to pour one's heart out. Really? If what we see in the media about the rallies is only one side of the story, why should readers believe that there are indeed spaces for dissenting and
challenging views? But we don't want to shoot the messenger. They are as important as the rallies themselves.

Having said that, one should ask if it is fair for the reader to have to sieve through media reports just to find the odd piece that comes close to a fair and representative account of what happened during these rallies and an analysis of the situation. Few, if any editorials explored the issues at stake -- evidence of marginalisation, feelings of insecurity over cultural markers like vernacular schools and places of worship, and political representation -- and instead harped on the illegality of the assembly and the "disorder" it created.

Such one-dimension pictures are increasingly difficult to believe. It seems that the media are still slow to react to the reality of the information age, where more and more readers are getting and comparing information from multiple sources of print, electronic and online media. The question is not whether the online media are more credible, but that the major media outlets have failed on standards of fairness, accuracy and truthful in their reporting. In the aftermath of the Hindraf rally, rumours spread like wildfire about the extent of the violence, possible deaths and others, and no matter how much the major media outlets do report the truth, there will be few takers. When so much of information in the mainstream media have been controlled right from the beginning, it will be difficult to convince readers of their credibility.

This is not to ignore the fact that the mainstream press have, among others, the Printing Presses and Publications Act and their owners, breathing down their necks. But it is certainly within their power to try pushing the limits, and to always tell the powers-that-be that blatant control is losing its relevance. Instead, openness and a free media should be the key. Freedom of expression is not a bad thing for Malaysia.


Gayathry Venkiteswaran
Executive Director

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