Open Letter to Prime Minister Badawi

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Dear Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi,

26 September 2007 saw 2000 lawyers in Putrajaya, Malaysia, ‘Walk for Justice’ to defend the good name and protest the sliding standards of their profession. ‘When lawyers march,’ said Ambiga Sreenevasan, President of Malaysia’s Bar Council, ‘something must be wrong.’

Last Saturday (10 November), 40,000 people from all walks of life and all ages walked through rain-drenched Kuala Lumpur, skirting roadblocks, locked Light Rail Transit stations, FRU [riot police]batons, tear gas and water cannons, as well as weeks of misinformation and propaganda through the mainstream media and hacked alternative media. They marched to show their disappointment in the current electoral system and their hopes for reform.

Malaysian citizens travelled for hours through the night from all over the country to play cat-and-mouse in Kuala Lumpur with an intimidating array of security forces, whose role was clearly not to secure our safety.

Protest rally in Kuala Lumpur 10 November, 2007

I saw men armed only with shouted slogans beaten with batons and shields and thrown to the ground. I saw an old woman in a wheelchair halted by a barricade of troops, wielding a deafening siren at her ears. I saw a child clinging to his mother’s shoulders being crushed back, and back. He looked terrified, and rightly so but he was there, like his parents, to stand up for his own future.

This was on Jalan Pasar in central KL, not Masjid Jamek where in spite of what Inspector-General of Police (IGP), Tan Sri Musa Hassan, described as police ‘restraint’ unarmed marchers, including journalists, were beaten, tear-gassed and bombarded by chemical-laced water cannons. At Jalan Pasar, we faced two rows of riot police, smashing batons against their shields. I saw people dropping to the ground around me.

This should be the journalist’s privilege to be allowed to witness, and to report the uncensored fruits of that act of witness. But in Malaysia, journalists and their editors are not afforded even this, or any other kind of professional privilege, or protection, so they can do their jobs according to the Journalists’ Code of Ethics. That is, among other things, to pursue factual accuracy and report objectively, without fear or favour.

Instead, journalism in Malaysia seems to be ruled by a Code of Fear and Favour. Here, our mainstream journalists and editors are directly or indirectly on the State’s payroll and, therefore, accountable to the State. Those who aren’t are kept on the tight leash of precarious licences and legislation designed to pit self-censorship against financial ruin.

Our media professionals do their best to navigate these treacherous waters, exercising professional pride through little acts of bravery, defiance and subterfuge. But in a true democracy, they shouldn’t have to. They shouldn’t have to find themselves in the pitiful position of cowed mouthpieces of the State obediently failing to report once a news blackout is ordered, or ‘reporting’ factual inaccuracies of astounding magnitude.

Like most of your State-controlled media, Prime Minister Abdullah, the Sunday Star reported only the IGP, Tan Sri Musa Hassan’s version of Saturday’s events. Journalism 101 requires a range of eyewitnesses to describe an event objectively, yet only your Ministers were allowed airtime; only aggrieved shopkeepers were interviewed and photos of traffic jams published, to support Deputy PM Dato’ Sri Najib Tun Razak’s lament that the march only served to disrupt traffic, create loss of business and ‘mar the general perception others have of our society.’

In a story in the New Straits Times (NST), the police were depicted as being ‘forced’ to use their batons, boots, shields, helmets, trucks, water cannons and helicopters against unarmed men, women and children.

This reconstruction of reality is one that I, and 40,000 other marchers, do not recognise. In spite of what we saw and experienced, we are told that we were only 4000 in number and that 245 of us were detained, as opposed to the 24 I saw released from IPK (Police Contingent Headquarters), Kuala Lumpur, that night. The next day, it was reported in the NST that the majority of detentions were pre-emptive, taking place outside Kuala Lumpur the day before the march, and that the reasons for arrest included being in possession of yellow t-shirts and bandanas.

Yes, there were massive traffic jams in KL that day, and yes, I saw shopkeepers hurriedly pull down their shutters, when the FRU and police amassed in battle formation at Central Market. Logic tells us, however, that the traffic jams were caused by numerous police roadblocks and other hindrances to public transport as much as by our march, which was marshalled and orderly.

We were constantly told to keep to the pavements, not to throw rubbish or disrupt public property, and even not to trample on plants along our way. Many people stuck in jams wound down their windows as we passed, smiling and shaking our hands. Others looked annoyed, of course.

I’m sitting at my local late night kopitiam (coffee shop) as I write this. It’s filled with college students chatting and watching football to go with their teh tarik and cigarettes. I can see how successful your media machinery is, Prime Minister, from what they say. They use the word ‘riots’ to talk about the march, which even a police spokesman described on national TV RTM2 News, on 10 November as, for the most part, peaceful.

This is no surprise, given the propaganda clips that have been running as part of news bulletins on RTM1 and 2 for the past few months intercutting flag-burning and stone-throwing with demonstrators getting their heads bashed in. These, as most admen will confirm, effectively equate demonstrations of any sort with escalating acts of violence on both sides.

‘Ini bukan budaya kita (This is not our culture),’ are the stern words of warning.

On TraxxFM, I’ve heard a strange song about democracy being played frequently a lullaby sung in a soothing paternal voice, about how taking democracy to the streets leads to a loss of self-respect and violence, which is ‘not our way.’ This song is in stark contrast to the ones TraxxFM’s hip DJs usually play.

This psychological embedding seems odd, Prime Minister, in the year we celebrate our 50 years of independence, which was won exactly by our forefathers taking their struggle for freedom, equality and justice to the streets, as well as the media and the discussion table. They did so peacefully then, as we did last Saturday.

Prime Minister Abdullah, one of the reasons we marchers men, women, children, and even incapacitated old folks braved confrontation in the streets of Kuala Lumpur last Saturday was to call for ‘equal access to the media’ as part of BERSIH’s (t
he Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections) push for electoral reforms, including the use of indelible ink, clean electoral rolls and the abolition of untraceable postal votes.

I didn’t wear a BERSIH yellow t-shirt on the march because even though I’m a sympathiser with the struggle for electoral reform, I’m also witness to both sides of the story. But I wore a yellow ribbon for ‘press freedom’ proudly, even though I’m not a journalist. I’m still wearing it now, with the poignant realisation that I can only write this letter, without fear or favour, precisely because I’m not a mainstream Malaysian journalist.

Of course, whether any of your editors will publish it or not is entirely a different matter.

That little scrap of ribbon, like the seemingly frail ribbon of marchers patiently weaving their way from all over the city to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s palace last Saturday, is symbolic of something far larger and far more important than our aching legs or bruises or our shivers caused by sitting uncomplainingly in the rain while the leaders delivered our memorandum to the King.

It symbolises what you have encouraged us repeatedly to celebrate and embrace: our ‘Merdeka Spirit’ of independence that causes the rakyat (people) to come out, in the face of fear and intimidation, to show their grave concern when things seem very wrong. Despite ongoing attempts at historical revisionism, this is decidedly a part of our Malaysian culture.

With all due respect, Prime Minister, your admonition on the eve of the march: ‘Saya pantang dicabar (I can’t stand to be challenged),’ is an odd thing for the leader of a democratic nation to say given that the basic rule of democracy is the right of all citizens to challenge and to defend against challenge. Everyone is entitled to this right, whether in their living rooms or in Parliament.

Challenges and debates also constantly take place in the media, whose fundamental role is to provide factual information and objective viewpoints by journalists and editors, as well as to allow equal access to publication and broadcast by proponents from either side of any argument.

Only in this way, can we ordinary citizens partake in democracy. Only then, can we weigh up differing statements and opinions against accountable facts. We may be allowed to vote, yes, but how can we choose effectively without freedom of media access and information?

When this integral pillar of any democratic system is obstructed, and belittled, as it is in Malaysia today, we cannot claim to live in a democracy. Our mainstream media then becomes merely a tool of the State, used to hoodwink, brainwash and intimidate the people it should rightly be serving. Instead, we, the people, are spoon-fed, led and expected to go quietly like sheep to a foregone conclusion.

If we beg to differ, offer alternative information and viewpoints, or even protest, we are called beruk (monkeys) as your son-in-law did earlier this year. [LINK: http://www.malaysiakini.com/news/70510] I think it preferable to be a monkey curious, inventive and mischievous than a sheep trotting meekly to my pen, or the slaughterhouse, nose pointed to the ground.

Prime Minister, we are indeed not Pakistan or Myanmar, as your Information Minister Datuk Seri Zainuddin Maidin blustered on Al Jazeera on 10 November, accusing that news agency of presenting a contrary view to what has appeared on Malaysian news, and of only talking to the Opposition, not Government representatives even as they were interviewing him.

This is a case of the pot calling the kettle black since almost no Opposition figures are allowed to speak in our mainstream media although their images are used in conjunction with images of street violence, for example, to influence viewers’ opinions about them, and without their having any right of reply.

‘Malaysia is a democratic country,’ Zainuddin fumed. But based on your State’s handling of the rakyat’s peaceful march last Saturday, Prime Minister, and your own media coverage prior to and about the actual event, it’s hard to entirely agree.

Unfortunately for Malaysia, this is the perception that will be broadcast internationally, by journalists and editors who are less muzzled than their mainstream Malaysian colleagues.

Therefore, Prime Minister Abdullah, I sincerely urge you and your Government, as our democratically elected leaders, to ‘walk the talk’ and un-muzzle our journalists, editors and broadcasters. I entreat you to fully and fairly endorse and practise democracy in our country. That is, democracy for everyone, not just a powerful few.

Thank you.

Yours sincerely,
Beth Yahp
Author

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Postscript: In response to blog comments on Elizabeth Wong

I’ve mostly had a wall of silence from the mainstream press that I sent my open letter to one reply saying: ‘Your articulate open letter was a pleasure to read. However, for the reasons you describe so well, we cannot risk publishing this. Thanks for speaking up for Malaysian journalists.’

It is important for us to speak up now, everyone of us with eyes and a conscience. I include journalists in this category whether officially gagged or not. They are the frontline defenders of our freedom to think and express our thoughts and experiences to the wider community. When journalists have lost their courage to speak up, when they are forced to accept the status quo without any questions, things are very serious for the rest of us.

As Tourism Minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor reminded journalists back in October:

On this Earth, we can do whatever we like, but you must remember that when you die, you have to answer to someone. So whatever you write, especially the press, write responsibly …
I’m not asking you to write truthfully, but write responsibly.

Apart from the refreshing if inadvertent honesty of this statement, what the Tourism Minister doesn’t elaborate on is who journalists are supposed to be responsible to: those holding the strings of power? Or the rakyat (people)?

It’s so important to go on the record now because of the Monty Pythonesque reality we are expected to swallow, and the stringent limitations on what we are allowed to see, say, hear, read, think, do and ‘believe.’ I keep expecting a giant cartoon boot to fall out of the sky and crush me at any moment, accompanied by tinny circus music.

A note on historical revisionism and Deputy PM Razak’s continuing to insist that ‘street demonstrations are not part of Malaysian culture’: please
see Fahmi Reza’s fine posts which reproduce pages from our own newspapers, reporting on Malaysia’s struggle for independence in the late 1940s.

These news reports show, in black and white, our forefathers’ (and mothers’) struggle in the streets against an oppressive colonial regime. Definitely, and proudly, a part of Malaysian culture!

However, in those days, the police took steps to ensure that demonstrations of the rakyat’s concern were safe for everyone, helping with traffic control rather than hindering the people’s progress at every step of the way.

Perhaps, in Monty Python mode, what our current newspapers should be running as headlines is: ‘Dulu British, Kini UMNO‘ (‘Then the British, Now UMNO’)?

[UMNO stands for United Malays National Organisation, the ruling coalition’s dominant Party]

Beth Yahp

Petaling Jaya, 14 November 2007

This is an edited version of the open letter posted on Elizabeth Wong on 12 November 2007

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