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State should stop fuelling tensions over Bersih rally, says CIJ

(CIJ/IFEX) - The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) condemns the federal government for not only repudiating the right to assemble peaceably of organisers and supporters of Bersih 2.0 – a movement campaigning for free and fair elections – but more dangerously, for actively drumming up public antipathy against the organisers and their planned rally on 9 July 2011 through the mainstream media, almost all of which is under state control.

Most recently, Prime Minister Najib Razak has even tried to put the blame on Bersih organisers for any chaos arising from the rally, which will also see two counter-rallies. This has led to heightened tensions, with growing threats from both state and non-state actors mostly against persons or organisations connected with the rally, including:

• death threats issued to at least seven persons
• the arrest of up to 81 persons since 22 June for various Bersih-related activities - from showing support for the assembly by wearing Bersih T-shirts to allegedly "waging war against the King"
• police calling Bersih supporters "communists" to evoke the pre-Independence "red menace"
• labeling of Bersih supporters with pejorative terms such as "anti-Islam" and "funded by foreign Christian groups"
• blocking of the website of human rights NGO SUARAM on 27 June by unknown hackers calling themselves "Indonesian coder team"
• a break-in at the SUARAM Penang office sometime over the weekend of 25 June
• an attempt to intimidate members of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), a federal opposition party, by a motorcyclist mob linked to UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) Youth – a component of the dominant party of the federal ruling coalition – who surrounded the PKR's headquarters on the night of 27 June and allegedly threatened to burn down the building

These developments are a cause for serious concern by all peace-loving Malaysians who value human and democratic rights.

The continued misuse of section 122 of the Penal Code to suppress the constitutional right of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and stifle legitimate criticism is unacceptable. The use of the Sedition Act and the Printing Presses and Publications Act against Bersih supporters for possessing leaflets and T-shirts in support of Bersih and leftist freedom fighters is ludicrous. CIJ is also appalled that the use of the Internal Security Act, which allows for detention of individuals without trial, has not been ruled out by the Home Minister.

The requirement of a permit for demonstrations under the Police Act, even for peaceful assemblies, is unconstitutional and should be reexamined without delay. At the very least, the government should put in place recommendations by the Malaysian Human Rights Commission to not only allow but also protect peaceful rallies, and for the use of proportionate and non-violent methods to disperse protesters.

CIJ reiterates its earlier statement that the right to peaceably assemble is guaranteed under Article 10 of the Federal Constitution, which the government is bound to uphold. CIJ disagrees with the demonisation of the Bersih rally and its branding as "illegal". We also note that the proposed counter-rallies by UMNO Youth and the "Malay rights" pressure group Perkasa have not been subjected to the same kind of scrutiny, nor have its leaders been vilified by the authorities. Yet of the three organisers, only the Bersih 2.0 steering committee have gone on record in support of peaceful assembly and issued guidelines on the dos and don'ts of demonstrations.

Instead of stoking fear over what is essentially a universal democratic right, the prime minister should step up to the responsibilities of his office and set the tone by acknowledging and respecting the rakyat's right to assemble peaceably.

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