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CIJ condemns censorship of controversial protest videos

(CIJ/IFEX) - 4 September 2009 - The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) has criticised the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) over its request to online news portal, Malaysiakini, to take down videos related to a controversial protest against the relocation of a temple in Shah Alam, close to the capital city of Kuala Lumpur.

CIJ executive director Gayathry Venkiteswaran said the request was unwarranted as it is an attempt by the government body to silence the messenger, in this case the media, from reporting news.

She was referring to the letter sent to Malaysiakini by the MCMC requesting the news portal remove two videos from its website. One of the videos included footage from the protest where a group of residents, mainly Malay Muslim, dragged a severed cow head to the premise of the state government office to protest the relocation of a Hindu temple to their residential area on 28 August 2009. Cows are generally regarded with respect by most Hindu devotees.

Despite the action, there was no immediate police investigation into the protest, which civil society groups condemned as legitimising violence and hatred. In the last week, the Home Minister has come out in defense of the protestors and even described them as victims in the issue. The Prime Minister has come out more strongly against the actions of the protestors and the authorities have promised to investigate the matter. The Home Minister's statement was made in an environment where activists, critics and opposition political parties have very little space for expression as the media is overwhelmingly controlled by the ruling government and where their public demonstrations have been met with heavy handed tactics by the state.

Muslims form the majority population in Malaysia. The issue of the location of places of worship has been controversial in the last few years with the demolition of sometimes 100-year-old temples. At the same time, the protest has taken place in the region of Selangor, one of the richest in the country, governed for the first time by a federal opposition coalition, and where the ruling coalition of Barisan Nasional has openly stated its plans to take back the state into its fold.

Citing a report by Malaysiakini and the MCMC letter posted on its website, monitoring and enforcement division senior
acting director Abdul Halim Ahmad was quoted as saying that the commission received many complaints and that the videos contained offensive content with the intent to annoy Indians.

Gayathry said the MCMC was misguided in its response as the role of the media is to report on issues with public interest. She said the source of the problem was not the media airing the footage, but that the protesters used methods that were despicable to voice their protest.

"It is the organisers of the cow-head protest who should be targeted and not the media that report on the matter. This is a repeat of what happened in the arrest of Sin Chew reporter Tan Hoon Cheng under the Internal Security Act last September who had reported on a public speech by Penang Umno leader Ahmad Ismail, where the messenger is attacked for what a politician expresses in public," Gayathry said.

The MCMC should not continue with this harassment and leave the online media to report on news as it sees fit. "There is no irresponsible or unethical reporting involved in the videos and if the commission is serious about not wanting to fuel public sentiments, it should support civil society calls to reject any use or threat of use of violence and hatred," she added, referring to the more than 70 civil society groups that have denounced the action of using the cow-head as part of the protest.

CIJ also finds that the broadly worded Communications and Multimedia Act allows for censorship to take place on flimsy grounds, for example, the poorly defined section that makes it a crime to "annoy" any person.

"The MCMC should be more discerning in assessing complaints it receives and understand better the role of the media as the fourth estate. If people feel upset by the videos, then they should be upset at any attempts of legitimising violence and hatred as a form of expression. The public has a right to be informed of what happens in society and the only way to mitigate any conflict is to present more fair and accurate information, not less."

The Centre for Independent Journalism, Malaysia (CIJ) is a non-profit organisation that aspires for a society that is democratic, just and free where all people will enjoy free media and the freedom to express, seek, and impart information.

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