Thousands of Malaysians joined a peaceful rally on Nov 10 organised by Bersih, the coalition of 67 civil society groups and five opposition political parties, to demand for electoral reforms.
Despite the extensive restrictions placed by the government, the public marched through the city, braving the rain, water cannons and tear gas, to make its point. Everyone supporting the cause as well as those protesting it followed the developments in real time, not because of the local media, but thanks to the blogs, mobile phones, SMSes, independent media, brave journalists and the foreign media.
Popular blogs were providing minute-by-minute updates on the rally, police action and people's opinions on the issues raised about the need for electoral reforms in the country. The government, showing signs of aghast at the sheer number, tried its best to sell misinformation through the major local media. News peddled by the government- and state-controlled media were mainly skewed towards diminishing the rally to an opposition gimmick at the expense of the issue and portraying the rally as a trouble-making exercise.
Such unfair reporting started before the rally as the government instructed the local media not to cover the event. In other words, no news from the point of view of the organisers or the public. In addition, state-run radio and television stations warned people not to participate in the march or wear yellow in their Friday broadcasts.
The most controversy concerning the coverage has been the number of people at the assembly and march. Official figures stated 4,000 during Saturday's march while observers and the foreign press have placed the number between 20,000 and 40,000. Besides that, the reports of the Federal Reserve Unit using the water cannons and the tear gas on the public clearly showed the intent of the government to lay the blame squarely on the people for provoking the authorities.
The police have also claimed that more than 200 people were arrested while human rights organisation Suaram and lawyers have refuted the figures, saying that only 34 have been arrested and most were released. Such discrepancies put the local media at peculiar odds with the presence of Al Jazeera, which ran a live report from the scene as well as other foreign agencies such as Reuters and AFP and bloggers.
The attempts in the media to brush off the largest public rally in recent years is reflective of the government's lack of respect for the public's freedom of expression and the right to know. By tying the hands of the media with legal and political tools, the government has only tarnished its own reputation as the public sees clearly how information is distorted.
The print and broadcast media will lose their relevance because of these controls. As it stands, they are fast overtaken by online and offline technologies like blogs, video sharing sites and mobile phones that disseminate images and text from the scene to thousands of people in real time.
The next few days will continue to see attacks against the organisers and demonstrators dominating the media. The Center for Independent Journalism (CIJ) believes that the public deserves information, not misinformation. It is high time the government review its harsh tactics to suppress expression, assembly and information. It should respect the people's right to assemble and allow the media do its job fearlessly to report the truth. These are rights enshrined in the Federal Constitution.
CIJ also calls on the media to open spaces for more diverse views, not just on the rally but on other public interest issues such as their democratic and political rights.
The writer is executive director, Center for Independent Journalism.