NOVEMBER 24 ― A day after the recent Bersih 5 rally, the mainstream press wrote about it in rather predictable ways.
Mingguan Malaysia, the Sunday edition of the indefatigable but financially bleeding Utusan Malaysia, alerted its readers to the national (and international) event via its front-page banner headline, “Bersih Hambar” (“Lacklustre Bersih”).
This is an overt attempt of the paper to pour cold water on a protest that was anything but lacklustre given the enthusiastic response from the Bersih participants and a motley bunch of challenges posed to them by their opponents.
Next to the headline was placed a large photo of Bersih participants at a certain section of the rally who were predominantly Chinese, which supposedly helped to reaffirm the paper’s contention that the rally was largely a Chinese-dominated affair that was presumably backed by supporters of the Democratic Action Party (DAP).
This suggests a cunning attempt of the paper to unnecessarily ethnicise an essentially multiethnic street protest the objectives of which are universal. And yet the paper, which is closely associated with Umno Baru, found it crucial to indirectly pit one ethnic group against another.
The following highlights on the front page reflected the paper’s editorial and ideological inclination as regards Bersih:
― “Perhimpunan haram Bersih hambar” (“Lustreless, illegal Bersih rally”);
― “Hanya jadi ‘kuda tunggangan’ pembangkang” (“Only a ‘tool’ of the opposition”);
― “Dikuasai kaum Cina dipercayai penyokong DAP” (“Controlled by the Chinese believed to be DAP supporters”);
― “Tun Mahathir, Muhyiddin Yassin gagal tarik orang Melayu” (“Tun Mahathir, Muhyiddin Yassin fail to attract the Malays”); and
― “Polis berjaya kawal keadaan dengan baik” (“Police succeed well in controlling situation”).
Ethnic factors prevailed yet again. On page 7, there was a lengthy interview piece headlined “Bersih: Ganggu Hidup Rakyat” (“Bersih: Disturbing Rakyat’s Life”) that showcases views of the following Malay-Muslim figures: Chairman of National Fatwa Committee, Emeritus Prof. Dr Abdul Shukor Husin; Head of Muslim Consumers’ Association of Malaysia (PPIM) Nadzim Johan; and Chairman of Integrity Bureau of the Malay Consultative Council, Mohd Zaman Khan Rahim Khan.
They were predictably critical of the Bersih movement as if to convey the impression that Bersih isn’t exactly suitable for for the Malay community which seems to reinforce the statement that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin failed to attract the Malays.
Religion, a favourite divisive tool among certain quarters in Malaysian society, was also raised by this paper. In its report on page 12 headlined “Bersih 5 eksploitasi agama” (“Bersih 5 exploits religion”), the paper contended that a certain church had entangled itself in this politics of protest to the extent that it reinforced the reported political argument of Raja Petra Kamarudin (of Malaysia Today) that a certain group of Catholics and Evangelical Christians had allegedly infiltrated the rally to pose, according to this brand of logic, a challenge to Islam.
It needs to be said here that Christianity, like any other religion including Islam, exhorts its followers to take the noble path of righting a wrong in society as well as helping the downtrodden and the marginalised.
Also getting into the act was Sunday Star. It splashed ― at least in its northern edition ― a front-page banner headline, between two separate photos of Bersih 5 participants and the red-shirted people: “Colours keep their cool”.
There are two-fold implications here: one, both ideologically different groups were placed on the same plane as if both Bersih 5 and the Red Shirts were raring for a violent clash. Unlike the red-shirted mob, Bersih 5 participants were, and still are, peace-loving people.
Two, it gave the impression that the attendance of both groups was almost equal. In fact, Bersih 5 participants far outnumbered the red-shirted ones as revealed by other publications such as online news outlets.
A similar slant was also felt elsewhere in this MCA-owned paper. The news story on page 4 had the effect of maintaining the myth that both groups were going for a fight. Headlined “A peaceful rally with both groups kept apart”, the first three paragraphs of the report (below) made it seem as if both groups had a similar tendency for violence, which purportedly managed to be contained by the police.
“Despite the ugly and sometimes violent run-up, the Bersih 5.0 rally and Red Shirts counter-rally turned out to be somewhat subdued and, more importantly, peaceful.
“The much predicted clash between the red and yellow shirts did not happen, thanks to the diligent and watchful men in blue.
“The coordinated arrests of key leaders on both sides by the police the day before may have served to take the sting out of the occasion.”
The third paragraph served to justify the pre-Bersih 5 arrests of key leaders of both groups, thereby giving the unjust impression that the arrested leaders of Bersih 5, particularly Maria Chin Abdullah who at the time of writing is still incarcerated, were equally notorious in their outlook and behaviour.
The front page of New Sunday Times (NSunT) also carried a screaming headline, “No Face-Off”, with a kicker: “Police keep security under control as thousands of Bersih and Red Shirts supporters march in separate rallies in Kuala Lumpur yesterday.” This also gave a feeling that both groups, with their thousands of supporters, were gearing up for a scuffle.
Like the Mingguan Malaysia, this Sunday paper ― also closely associated with Umno Baru ― also provided highlights on its front page that gave a sense of its ideological bent:
― “8 arrested, including Tian Chua, Hishamuddin Rais and Datuk Armand Azha Abu Hanifah”
― “Red Shirts leader Datuk Seri Jamal Md Yunos remanded”
― “Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad uses rally to denounce government, pitch for PPBM”
― “Rally moved to KLCC from Dataran Merdeka”
― “Pas stays away again, says Bersih is no longer what it used to be”
The news report of leaders of both groups being arrested and, in the case of Jamal Yunos, remanded, was aimed at giving the impression that these leaders who were troublemakers deserved to be punished on equal terms. Equally unsavoury is the impression deliberately conjured that the Bersih movement was made out to be a tool used by Mahathir’s PPBM (or, to use the unsanctioned term, Bersatu).
Additionally, Malay-based PAS, in this reportage, helped endorse the notion fashionable among the BN folks that Bersih was no longer its original self and that the Malays should stay away from it.
The quotes (below), under the heading “Voices”, on the side-bar of page 6 only reinforced the demonisation of Bersih made through the expressions of no less than Umno Baru personalities. Here Bersih is synonymous with chaos, trouble and disharmony.
“They are trying to bring chaos here, just like what happened in many countries, which led to huge economic losses.” Ahmad Razif Abdul Rahman, Chief, Terengganu Umno.
“That is what they (the opposition) are doing (using the rally to instigate the people to go to the streets). They are associated with Bersih. Just look at opposition leaders’ presence at the rally.” Datuk Seri Dr Hilmi Yahaya. Chief, Balik Pulau Umno division.
“If the people are not happy and want change, use the ballot box to express your dissatisfaction. Our country promotes togetherness and street rallies will jeopardise peace and harmony.” Datuk Jainab Ahmad Ayid. Vice-chief, Sabah Wanita Umno.
News stories and voices as above drowned out essential information such as the primary objective of the Bersih movement that the general public ought to know. Neither was there space, or sufficient platform, for other views regarding Bersih provided in these papers.
The case of the three mainstream newspapers above obviously illustrates the fact that their coverage of Bersih 5 largely followed a prescribed narrative that mirrored the vested interests and concerns of the powers-that-be. Such reportage, which violated journalistic ethics that demand fair and responsible journalism, is indeed anticipated.
Having said that, it is also vital to situate this journalistic transgression in the larger context where the powers-that-be are battling an array of challenges, such as the rising cost of living, corruption and ethnic bigotry, that essentially undermine their credibility and political hegemony.
A high degree of investigative journalism, with the help of whistle-blowers, would go a long way towards bringing the ruling politicians to account. But then, as we know, the cavalier use of the Official Secrets Act (OSA) and Sedition Act, among other draconian laws in the land, by the state would make such kinds of journalism nigh impossible especially in the mainstream media.
It is against this backdrop that one should also be mindful of the recent interventions on Malaysiakini by the state as well as social forces aligned ideologically to it.
This also goes to show that whatever freedom that is available now to online publications and journalists must be guarded jealously ― especially in these challenging times ― not only by the journalistic fraternity but Malaysians who are concerned about freedom of the media, freedom of expression and democracy in the country.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.