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Call for respect of free expression on eve of Bersih 2.0 rally

(SEAPA/IFEX) - In a letter to the prime minister, free expression advocates and media practitioners expressed alarm over recent arrests of nationals and foreigners on trumped-up charges for supporting calls for electoral reform.

5 July 2011

Prime Minister Dato' Sri Mohammed Najib bin Tun Abdul Razak
Office of the Prime Minister
Main Block, Perdana Putra Building
Federal Government Administrative Centre
62502 Putrajaya, MALAYSIA

His Excellency:

Bersih 2.0: Respect for Citizens' Rights to Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression

Advocates of press freedom and freedom of expression and media practitioners in Southeast Asia consider the scheduled Bersih 2.0 rally on 9 July 2011 as a milestone in Malaysians' attempts to exercise their rights to assemble and express themselves. Articles 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and Article 10 of the Malaysian Federal Constitution guarantee the rights of people to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of association, all crucial for a democratic society.

We are therefore alarmed at the series of events in the past week in which almost a hundred Malaysians and a handful of foreigners have been arrested and detained on what we consider as trumped-up charges for promoting and supporting civil society calls for electoral reforms.

These events contrast with your action in your first week in office in 2009 when you ordered the release of 13 people detained under the Internal Security Act and also removed the ban on two opposition newspapers. Such actions heralded well (at least at that time) your administration's apparent commitment to recognize the fundamental rights of Malaysians.

Malaysia's record in promoting and protecting press freedom and freedom of expression has been disappointing in the face of growing commitments by governments around the world to uphold these basic rights.

As freedom of expression advocates, we deplore several incidents in the past days that violate the Malaysian people's rights to freedom of expression. These could have been avoided had your administration taken steps to uphold press freedom and basic human rights, among them:

* The questioning of journalists by police under Article 112 (examination of witness) of the Malaysian Penal Code, over the 14 Bersih activists detained on 2 July in the northern state of Kedah. According to news reports, police confined the journalists at the premise where a rally was said to take place;

* The attack on three media workers in the rally at Penang on 1 July. A journalist, a photographer and a videographer were mauled by protesters believed to be members of UMNO, Perkasa and Suara Anak-Anak Mamak Pulau Pinang (the latter two are NGOs sanctioned by the ruling party UMNO). They staged the rally at the Penang Bridge in protest of Penang's Pakatan Rakyat state government and also in opposition to the Bersih 2.0 rally. One media worker was threatened by an UMNO member that he would be thrown off the bridge;

* The threat by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) chief strategy officer Datuk Mohamed Sharil Mohamed Tarmizi to shut down websites that posted content deemed offensive and a threat to national security, through the use of the Communications and Multimedia Act;

* The ridiculous order from the MCMC to private broadcasters not to mention the words "Bersih 2.0" and "July 9", yet at the same time broadcast messages discouraging people from attending the rally; and

* The MCMC's one-day seminar entitled 'Content Monitoring Seminar 2011' where it invited 22 electronic media and telecommunications operators at its auditorium in Cyberjaya when participants were reportedly advised by the MCMC to refer to the Bersih 2.0 rally as an "illegal gathering"; use their respective media to discourage their audience from attending it; and avoid publishing or uploading footages of possible police brutality but instead highlight the inconvenience the rally would cause to the public.

We believe that the Bersih 2.0 rally is a democratic exercise worthy of support of elected democratic governments. We expect your government to ensure that these rights are exercised. The authorities' move to suppress these rights, as well as rights to free and independent media coverage has only aggravated the situation and betrays your initial commitment to greater freedom of expression in Malaysia.

We urge you and your government to respect the rights of citizens to express their concerns over an important issue - electoral reforms; to protect citizens exercising the freedom of assembly; to reject all threats of and forms of violence against the rally participants and journalists; and to insure that the media is free from state control so that it can perform its role to inform citizens without fear or favour.

Respectfully,

Southeast Asian Press Alliance
Aliansi Jurnalis Independen/Alliance of Independent Journalists
Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility
Centre for Independent Journalism - Malaysia
Institute for the Studies on Free Flow of Information
Mizzima News
Thai Journalists Association

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Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION
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    On the morning of June 29, authorities raided the offices of the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (Bersih 2.0), a coalition of civil society organisations campaigning for electoral reforms, without a warrant. The organisation's materials were confiscated and six staff members and one volunteer were arrested.

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