The mainstream press’ disregard of the Bersih phenomenon reflected its abandoning of journalistic ethics and its eroding commitment to truth and social responsibility, says Mustafa K Anuar.
The first Bersih rally in 2007 had been widely credited for the reversal of the Opposition’s electoral and political fortunes as shown by the overall results of the 2008 general elections. This painful memory must have rankled and sent shivers down the Umno-BN government’s spine when the steering committee and supporters of Bersih 2.0 rally eventually decided to press on with their plan to have their Walk for Democracy towards the Merdeka Stadium on 9 July 2011.
There was also the apparent fear within government circles that a big turnout on the streets of Kuala Lumpur would be a humiliating indication publicly that there is a sizeable portion of the population, and this includes the “silent majority”, who are unhappy with the present electoral system and the Najib administration.
In the run-up to the Bersih 2.0 rally, various hurdles were placed by the powers-that-be in the path of the rally supporters – such as fear-mongering, pre-rally arrests (which included the detention of the so-called EO 6 (Emergency Ordinance 6) led by Parti Sosialis Malaysia’s Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj), threats to the lives of Bersih 2.0 chairperson S Ambiga and colleagues, and the criminalising of the wearing of yellow Bersih 2.0 T-shirts and almost everything and anything yellow!
Given this political backdrop, it was therefore hardly surprising that a day after the rally the pro-government mainstream press splashed headlines, news reports, so-called “analyses” and photos that essentially and predictably mocked, discredited and demonised the leaders, supporters and participants of the Bersih 2.0 rally in Kuala Lumpur.
For instance, the Sunday Star carried a front-page headline that screamed: “Defiant”. The bold headline accompanied a huge picture of a face-off between Federal Reserve Unit/other police personnel and protesters at the Puduraya bus terminal, deliberately closed temporarily by the authorities.
Why “defiant”? This is because in the period leading up to the rally proper the powers-that-be, with the help of their compliant mainstream media, had drummed up propaganda that an “illegal” rally was being planned by an entity that was eventually declared “illegal” by the Home Minister.
Surely, as this logic would insist, to go along with that “illegal” gathering, nay defying the restriction order and police warning, was an act of defiance of the highest order on the part of the protesters.
If anything, to go along with this argument to its logical end, the demonstrators “deserved” to be depicted as “troublemakers” or a “disruptive mob” and castigated accordingly. In the absence of news coverage reminding people about their democratic and constitutional right to exercise their freedom of assembly and expression peaceably, the negative depiction of the protesters was aimed at influencing the less politically savvy or simply naïve.
It, therefore, “made sense” for Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was quoted all the way from Kuala Terengganu, where he was attending a Bakti sports competition on that Saturday itself, to have expressed his relief that the “illegal” rally “did not cause serious harm to people and property” (Headlined on page 2, “PM glad no real harm caused”). In other words, one should have expected anarchy or vandalism at the very least from people who seemingly had the penchant for breaking laws — but, alas, the police were able to arrest that chaotic eventuality.
On the same page as the PM’s story, the “people’s paper” ran its editorial, headlined “The game is over, time for everybody to move on”, which bordered on mischief. Surely those who participated in the rally, knowing full well the possibility of incurring the state’s wrath, manifested in the chemically-laced water and tear gas all around them, knew that this was no game at all.
Indeed, the people had made a calculated move to not only sacrifice their precious Saturday but also bear the brunt of the state apparatus. No picnic or stroll in the park on Saturday, this one.
Besides, some of the things posed by the editorial made one wonder whether the paper was located on a different planet: For example, “…was there no better way of putting across the message, cause or demand for a clean general election?” (Yes, the Bersih 2.0 folk had expressed grievances to the Election Commission, but had not yet received a satisfactory response); “Whether or not a street demonstration should be the last resort for aggrieved parties, it should seldom, if ever, be the first.” (Yes, because of the lukewarm response of the Commission, the rally became the last resort); and “The Yang di-Pertuan Agong had advised rally organisers against a street protest, and the prime minister had approved in principle a stadium rally.” (Yes, there was an attempt by the Bersih 2.0 organisers to come to the negotiation table, as rightly suggested by the King, with the Najib administration but it wasn’t reciprocated eventually). So were the Bersih 2.0 folk still playing a game?
To be sure, there was space given to the Bersih 2.0 organising committee to briefly express their views pertaining to the rally, but this was buried in the inside pages, placed next to a news item on Perkasa. MCA president Chua Soi Lek, to which this paper is politically affiliated, was given coverage in an earlier page where he categorically protested that “Bersih’s protests make no sense.” Clueless in Kuala Lumpur.
As if not to be outdone, the New Sunday Times (NST) “graced” its entire front page with a picture of presumably one of the protesters, face masked and donning military fatigues, about to throw something into the air. In other words, the kind of “combatant” that could wreak havoc in the otherwise calm but jammed streets of Kuala Lumpur.
This picture, which might remind you of the stormy Palestinian Intifada of yore, was juxtaposed with the quizzical headline “Peaceful?” This was possibly aimed at questioning the Bersih 2.0 rally organisers’ public assurance that the event would be free of violence.
Incidentally, the same picture was also used by sister newspaper in the Media Prima stable), Berita Minggu, with the headline, “KL tegang” (KL tense), accompanying it. The picture caption stated: “Seorang perusuh membawa pisau dalam perhimpunan haram” (A rioter brings a knife to illegal rally).
Subsequently, the man in question, a certain Abdul Razak Endut, a member of Pas’ Unit Amal volunteer corps, claimed publicly that he was only holding a Malaysian flag and not a knife as alleged by the newspaper’s front-page photograph. This prompted Penang PKR Youth on 12 July to accuse the newspaper of “doctoring” the picture, which was then denied by the newspaper company concerned.
Like the coverage of the Sunday Star, the NST’s was meant to convey a message to readers that street demonstrations of this nature inevitably lead to chaos, a breakdown in law and order; such protests are a danger to national security and hurt businesses big time. Hence, the need by the police to lock down the key entry points into the city and set up road blocks.
The second page of the paper ran the expected headline, “Four hours of madness”, accompanied by a big photo of demonstrators drenched in chemically-laced water in front of Menara Maybank in Kuala Lumpur. Near them was a fallen motorcycle parked by the roadside, presumably knocked down by the running crowd. A picture of disorder, in short.
A cursory look at the headlines in the following pages would give an indication of the newspaper’s ideological slant: “Govt not against fair election, says Najib”; “Hisham: King’s advice not heeded”; “‘Swift action contained rallies’”; “16 children among 1,667 held”; “Gloom as shoppers shy away”; “Demos ruin wedding plans”; and then the so-called think pieces of the paper’s Who’s Who such as “Sheer display of arrogance and political posturing”; and “Apply the law on rally organisers.”
The only space allotted to the Bersih 2.0 organisers by the newspaper was the one placed in the inside pages that reported of Pas threatening another rally if the authorities didn’t release their leaders and other Bersih 2.0 committee members; and next to it a news story indicating Bersih 2.0’s demands, but then this without the steering committee members being given a voice to speak in their own right (“4 more demands added to 2011 list”).
The unmistakable and indefatigable Mingguan Malaysia screamed a headline “Usaha polis berjaya” (the police’s effort bears fruit) to convey the message that the police force managed to pre-empt the “illegal” attempts of the Bersih 2.0 folk to march to the Merdeka Stadium, thus saving Kuala Lumpur from unwarranted calamity.
It is the kind of “news” that was supposed to induce a sigh of relief among its law-abiding readers. This news item carried with it a big photograph of a scene where a few of the demonstrators were seen to have thrown certain objects at the police truck that was moving in fr@�����