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Authorities violently shut down road show on electoral reform, restrict media coverage of the incident

(SEAPA/IFEX) - On 8 September 2007, in the northeastern state of Terengganu, Malaysian police disrupted a road show calling for electoral reform in the country, resulting in a riot that saw two people seriously wounded after they were shot by a police officer.

The police rejected the permit application for the outdoor talk one day before it was scheduled to be held in the state capital Kuala Terengganu, angering the people who had turned up to seek information about weaknesses in the electoral process. Police sprayed the crowd with chemical-laced water and tear gas. An officer fired live rounds from his pistol, allegedly in self-defence after he was cornered and beaten with sticks. His shots hit two people, Suwandi Abdul Ghani, 37, and Muhamad Azman Aziz, 21, in the chest and neck, respectively. They have been hospitalised and are recovering from the ordeal.

SEAPA is concerned at the high-handed police action against what is basically the people's exercise of their right to information. Further, there appears to be a concerted effort by the authorities to prevent independent coverage of the fracas. Online daily "Malaysiakini" reports that cameras of photographers were allegedly confiscated and reporters barred from entering the area. Police also detained a journalist, Suhaimi Taib, who works for the opposition party web broadcaster PAS TV, and 23 others.

Suhaimi and 19 of those detained were released the same night while the remaining four have been remanded for attending an "illegal assembly".

The electoral reform talk, organised by BERSIH, a coalition of non-governmental organisations, civil society groups and opposition parties, has been held in other parts of the country without attracting any untoward incident. The country is expected to hold general elections in early 2008.

SEAPA supports its Malaysian partner, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), in calling for an open and independent investigation into the incident and for a review or repeal of laws restricting the freedoms of speech and assembly.

The Malaysian Federal Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression. However, it also allows Parliament to impose restrictions on freedom of expression in the interest of security. This freedom is further limited by the 1958 Public Order (Preservation) Ordinance and 1967 Police Act (Amendments 1988) which allow the police to refuse any public assembly or gathering on reasons of security.

It was disturbing that a public gathering "to air legitimate grievances" was met with violence, said CIJ in an 11 September release ( http://www.cijmalaysia.org/display_story.asp?ID=538 ). The media freedom watchdog is concerned that the denial of the public's right to assembly and to access information may have brought about confrontations that could have been avoided.

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