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Thousands in rare rally call for electoral reforms; with mainstream media bound, Internet tells their stories

(SEAPA/IFEX) - Thousands of Malaysians overcame barriers both natural and man-made to join a rare rally in capital city Kuala Lumpur on the afternoon of 10 November 2007, to petition to the Agong (Supreme Monarch), Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin, calling for free and fair elections.

Braving heavy rain, police roadblocks and riot police beatings, tear gas and chemical-laced water jets, government propaganda and threats of legal action against the "illegal" rally, and even Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's warning the day before that he "will not be challenged" by the defiant organisers, most of the participants succeeded in reaching the National Palace to deliver the memorandum to a palace aide and make their point en masse, if not in the mainstream media.

The need for one of their demands - equal access to the media - was proven by the dearth of coverage of the event the following day in the mainstream media, which are largely controlled by the government through ownership and legislative restrictions. As per a government order prior to the rally, their reports quoted only the authorities - police and government officials - condemning the rally as "illegal" for not having a police permit, and either denying police high-handedness or justifying it, in a clash with participants at one of the meeting points.

Wearing anything in yellow, the rally participants flooded city streets with the campaign colour, reaching 40,000 in figures, according to the organiser, Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections. Yet none of such pictures made it in the mainstream media, which merely quoted the official count of 4,000 participants instead of making their own independent assessment. None of the thousands who dared defy the ban on the gathering was "heard" in the mainstream media as to why they took to the streets.

Instead, eye-witness accounts were found on blogs and websites of participants, the opposition party and independent online daily "Malaysiakini", most of which recorded high traffic on the day of the rally, to the point that visitors had to be diverted to alternative sites. Amateur videos and pictures of the rally were also uploaded on popular online networking utility Facebook.com and video-sharing site Youtube.com.

Commenting on the government misinformation, V. Gayathry, executive director of Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) Malaysia, said, "The attempts in the media to brush off the largest public rally in recent years is reflective of the government's lack of respect for the public's freedom of expression and the right to know. 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." ( For full text of CIJ's 13 November release, see: http://www.cijmalaysia.org/display_story.asp?ID=552 )

CIJ is a SEAPA partner based in Kuala Lumpur and a member of the coalition calling for electoral reforms.

Rally participants, including an Al-Jazeera journalist on duty, reported of how an initially peaceful scene at one of the gathering points near the historic Jamek Mosque turned chaotic when scores of riot police aimed jets of chemical-laced water at hundreds of people and tear-gassed them about a dozen times, allegedly without warning. About 4,000 police personnel were reportedly deployed to seal off roads and prevent rally-goers from reaching the intended starting point at Independence Square in the heart of the capital city. The day before, roadblocks had already been set up on major roads into the city to screen out outstation participants.

Police said 245 people had been arrested, with all released the same day after their statements were recorded. However, the rally organisers said only 34 had been arrested. They said at least seven rally participants were beaten with batons and kicked by riot police. Some needed hospital treatment, including one for a broken leg.

A flawed electoral system has resulted in legislative representations that are grossly disproportionate to the popular vote and a one-party state since the country gained independence in 1957. Sixty-seven civic society organisations and opposition political parties thus came together to form the coalition calling for electoral reforms, and went ahead with the rally despite being refused a police permit on fears of public disorder.

The 1967 Police Act stipulates a permit for gatherings of more than three people. Opposition and civil society groups, however, have consistently held up the Constitution's guarantee for freedom of assembly under Article 10 and insisted on exercising their right to peaceful assembly as a means of free expression, given the lack of democratic space in the mainstream media.

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