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Government fuelling tensions over rally for clean elections

A Malaysian protester wears a Bersih headband during a banned opposition rally in 2007. Bersih 2.0 is scheduled for 9 July 2011
A Malaysian protester wears a Bersih headband during a banned opposition rally in 2007. Bersih 2.0 is scheduled for 9 July 2011

REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad

A rally for free and fair elections in Malaysia hasn't even happened yet, but those who have been promoting or reporting on it are getting harassed and arrested, report the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), Human Rights Watch and other IFEX members. The members have called on the Malaysian government to allow the 9 July march to proceed and journalists to cover the story without fear of reprisals.

"The Malaysian government's crackdown on an electoral reform group shows utter disregard both for free expression and for the democratic process," said Human Rights Watch. "Governments that elected Malaysia to a second term on the UN Human Rights Council might feel duped."

According to Human Rights Watch, general elections are not slated for Malaysia until 2013, but the government has tightened repression on all election-related activity.

On 29 June, authorities raided the offices of the main rally organiser, the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (popularly known as Bersih 2.0), a group of more than 60 civic and rights organisations campaigning for electoral reforms in Malaysia. They arrested seven people and confiscated computers, office equipment and campaigning materials.

According to SEAPA, more than 100 activists have been arrested for wearing Bersih 2.0 T-shirts and distributing leaflets since the call went out for the rally.

Watch a video from 29 June of 12 people being arrested for wearing Bersih 2.0 T-shirts and handing out the national flag (by alternative video production company Jom Ubah Malaysia):

In one instance, 30 members of the opposition Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM), including two minors, were pulled off their bus and arrested on their way to a political rally in Penang on 25 June, reports Human Rights Watch. They were charged with "waging war" against the King of Malaysia - which carries penalties of up to life in jail - for wearing shirts with photos of former Communist Party of Malaysia leaders and distributing election campaign flyers.

Amnesty International has put out an urgent action for six of them, who have been detained without charge under Malaysia's Emergency Ordinance - where police can hold detainees for 60 days without judicial review. The other 24 were released on 4 July but charged with associating with Bersih 2.0, which was not declared an illegal organisation until after their arrest. (Take action for the six here.)

The Malaysian government, instead of responding positively to Bersih's electoral reform programme, which includes fair access of all political parties to the media, has started what looks to be a campaign to discredit the coalition and to scare off Malaysians who had considered participating in the 9 July march.

The Home Affairs Minister, Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, made clear that the government would not permit the march. The Minister of Information, Communication and Culture, Rais Yatim, called the event an "evil and unlawful rally," reports Human Rights Watch.

According to CIJ, the government is seeking to prosecute Bersih leaders and activists using laws such as the Malaysia Police Act (in which a permit for demonstrations is required), the Sedition Act, and the Printing Presses and Publications Act (for possessing leaflets and T-shirts in support of Bersih).

SEAPA says there has also been talk of using the Communications and Multimedia Act to shut down websites that post content deemed offensive and a threat to national security.

Hussein has repeatedly said that the authorities may also apply the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) to prosecute the organisers. Under the act, police can detain individuals for up to 60 days without a warrant, trial or access to legal counsel. (ISA is imposed at a ministerial level, while requests for Emergency Ordinances are made by the police.)

"We emphasise that invoking the ISA is wholly inappropriate and an extremely disproportionate response to a legitimate and peaceful gathering," said SEAPA.

Even Prime Minister Najib Razak has chimed in, accusing Bersih of trying to "wrest back political momentum" from the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front), says Human Rights Watch. Most recently, Razak has already blamed Bersih organisers for any chaos that might arise from the rally, reports CIJ - although government-friendly organisations are proposing counter-rallies on the same day.

The government is also using the mainstream press - almost all under state control - to drum up public hostility against the organisers and discourage people from attending the rally. Bersih supporters have been called "communists", "anti-Islam", and "funded by foreign Christian groups". Some independent journalists have reported being questioned by police and attacked by ruling party supporters, says SEAPA.

Malaysian civil society has consistently expressed concerns over electoral irregularities in Malaysia, including rampant vote-rigging in favour of the ruling coalition, says Freedom House. Freedom of assembly, although protected under the Malaysia constitution, is often limited on the grounds of maintaining security and public order.

A previous Bersih rally in 2007 was attended by approximately 60,000 people and led to improved performance by the election commission in the 2008 elections, reports Freedom House.

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