by Simon Roughneen, July 18, 2011
More than a week after Malaysian police fired teargas and water cannons at thousands of demonstrators seeking reform of the country’s electoral system, a Facebook petition calling on Prime Minister Najib Razak to quit has drawn over 200,000 backers, highlighting the role of social and new media in Malaysia’s restrictive free speech environment.
One contributor to the page wrote: “The world is full of multimedia and electronics; the things we so call camera and videocam … And photos and videos were already being uploaded on the Internet but ‘it’ still denies the truth and makes stories and lies until today.”
Social media such as Facebook and Twitter have played a major role in motivating some of the demonstrators in the run-up to the rally, which went ahead despite a police ban and lockdown imposed on sprawling Kuala Lumpur on the eve of the July 9 protest.
The demonstration organizer, Bersih 2.0 — a coalition of 63 NGOs (non-government organizations) that wants changes such as updated electoral rolls and a longer election campaign period — has its own Facebook page, attracting a similar number of “likes” as the page urging Najib to step down, with 190,000+ fans at the time of this posting.
The latest notable update is another petition, requesting 100,000 backers for a Bersih 3.0 — although organization head Ambiga Sreenavasan has said she does not foresee any similar protests in the immediate future.
CLEARING DISTORTED COVERAGE
Along with online news sites such as Malaysiakini and Free Malaysia Today, social networks have helped get around partisan coverage by newspapers close to the government, where accounts of the rally did not square with what I witnessed.
Coverage in Utusan, the pro-government Malay-language daily and best-selling print newspaper in Malaysia, was explicitly hostile to the protest and has remained so in the days since. Just this week, the paper came out with an editorial claiming that Jewish groups would use the opposition to infiltrate the Muslim country. The day after the rally, the front page of the English-language New Straits Times (NST) showed a single protestor, face covered with a scarf, looking set to hurl something at someone or something, minus the surrounding street scene.
The photo was headlined “Peaceful?” and was devoid of context, the implication being that Kuala Lumpur was beset by thousands of other would-be anarchists on July 9 and the police acted with heroic restraint in the face of relentless provocation. The NST is linked to Malaysia’s main governing party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which has ruled uninterrupted since independence in 1957.