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Thursday, April 14, 2011

He who controls the information, controls the elections

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Walski received the following in mail earlier today – it’s a joint-statement by the Center for Independent Journalism (CIJ), Charter2000-Aliran, and Writers’ Alliance for Media Independence (WAMI).

It’s relevance to current events is obvious once you start to read it. And because of its relevance, Walski felt obligated to share it with you

Joint media statement (14 April 2011): Control of information handicaps Sarawak elections

On 16 April 2011, close to one million voters in Sarawak will choose their new state government. In order to exercise this right, they require accurate and timely information about the candidates, political parties and election manifestos, as well as the crucial issues of the day.

However, we, the undersigned civil society organisations, note that there have been serious incidents and factors ahead of the 10th state elections which are preventing Sarawakians from seeking, receiving and sharing vital information that can help them decide on their representatives and government:

The massive cyberattacks targeting two critical news sites within the campaign period.
Sarawak Report, which has been publishing detailed allegations about chief minister Taib Mahmud and his family’s extensive business interests, disproportionate wealth and massive land grabs, had faced interrruptions the week before which climaxed into a full-scale Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack on 10 April. The attack rendered the site inaccessible for three days, eventually forcing the owners to publish from a new address.

Popular news portal Malaysiakini was attacked in the same manner on 12 April, incapacitating its two locally hosted servers and forcing the owners of the paid subscription site to resort to Facebook, WordPress and other free publishing platforms to get their news out.

The nexus between politics and business in media ownership and control.
With all media in the state under the ownership and control of both federal and Sarawak governments, critical issues regarding native customary land, poverty, the alleged rape of Penan women by logging company employees, and governance issues during Taib's 30-year governance are under-reported or even censored.

A recent example of such control was reported by Malaysiakini on 13 April, which said TV stations under the UMNO-linked media conglomerate Media Prima have been ordered not to broadcast footage of the opposition's nightly talks in various towns that have been drawing capacity crowds.

There is also the still pertinent suspension of Sarawak Tribune executive editor Paul Si for publishing on the front page on 30 August 2010, a Bernama report entitled, “Is Taib Mahmud testing the waters?” which questioned the chief minister's claim of retiring soon. Although the suspension, for which a gag order was also issued, was said to be for two weeks, Si remains in cold storage till today.

The absence of free airtime for candidates
Most rural Sarawakians depend on radio and television for information, so the state broadcaster is duty-bound to provide free airtime for all candidates to deliver their message to the voters. Televised debates are a common feature of election campaigns in many democracies.

We regret that the Election Commission (EC) has refused to call on RTM to provide for free airtime and televised debates even though the state agency has the constitutional duty under Article 115(2) to assist the EC in the running of elections.

The arrest of two Sarawakian indigenous rights activists over possession of critical material.
Abun Sui Anyit, a human rights and land rights lawyer, was arrested at Miri Airport on 6 January under the Sedition Act, for possession of CDs and leaflets containing reports from Radio Free Sarawak and TV Sarawak Bebas alleging Taib of corruption. Nicholas Mujah, the secretary of the Sarawak Dayak Association and another vocal land rights activist, was arrested in Kuching after police seized more than 1,000 CDs from his office around the same time, but under the Film Censorship Act. Both have been freed on police bail, but investigations are ongoing.

(the rest of the joint statement in the full post)

The barring of activists from other states from entering Sarawak
While the Sarawak government has the power under Section 65 (I)(a) of the Immigration Act 1959/1963 to control who enters the state, this power has been abused to prevent non-Sarawakian activists critical of Taib from direct engagement with the people.

A 1994 ban on native rights activist Jannie Lasimbang was invoked in 2010 when she tried to enter the state in her new capacity as Suhakam commissioner. Upon protest, the ban was lifted a few months later, but on condition that she stayed away from activities 'detrimental' to the interests of the state.

More recently, political activist Steven Ng, academic-activist Wong Chin Huat and lawyer-activist Haris Ibrahim were stopped by Kuching airport immigration officers from entering the state on orders of the state security.

These incidents and factors point to a pattern of political control of information regarding the incumbent state government in an environment that already heavily favours them. While urban residents have access to the messages of opposition and independent candidates via the nightly talks being held in towns and cities, much of the population is in remote areas reachable only by boats, a communications option that is further limited by the 10-day campaign period set by the Election Commission. The poor infrastructure and physical difficulties posed by the mountainous terrain meant that the media with the biggest reach is radio, which is under the government's licensing control, although there is now the “whistleblower” Radio Free Sarawak.

As such, Sarawakians are being shortchanged of information that can help them to vote wisely, with repercussions beyond their borders since this is the first state elections in Malaysia after the 2008 general elections that shook the hegemony of the Barisan Nasional.

We strongly protest the malicious cyberattacks which limits the people's access to information and violates the right to free expression and urge the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission to investigate this case under the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 for abuse of computer facilities.

We reiterate the need to repeal repressive media laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 and Sedition Act 1948, which have severely hindered the people's right to freedom of expression – especially crucial during elections.

We also urge for the amendment of election laws to require state-run television and radio stations to provide for free air time for all candidates and political parties.

Unless the above vital issues are addressed seriously by the powers-that-be, democracy in Malaysia remains an illusion while its people shackled by draconian laws.

Jointly issued by:

Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ)
Writers' Alliance for Media Independence (WAMI)

For more information, you can contact: Masjaliza Hamzah, CIJ Executive Officer, at 016-3795901; Anil Netto and Mustafa K Anuar, Charter 2000-Aliran coordinators,; or Wong Chin Huat, WAMI chairperson,

Elections are supposed to be free and fair. But in Malaysia, are they really? Free perhaps – for the most part you don’t have someone threatening you if you don’t vote a certain way. Not yet, anyway.

Fair? Certainly not. Barisan Nasional, the incumbent coalition that controls the Federal Government, and naturally its resources, makes full use of government resources for the benefit of their campaign. Resources that are funded by tax payers.

Government handouts, goodies and freebies are blatantly promised as part of BN’s campaign, not just in Sarawak, but each and every time there’s an election. And who funds these? Again, the tax payers.

Of course, these would never be construed as election enticement. Fuck no. Not when it’s BN – so fucking blatant is the swollen-headedness of BN that you seldom hear the phrase “Kerajaan Malaysia” (Malaysian Government) anymore.

Instead, it’s always Kerajaan Barisan Nasional. When the fuck did Malaysia change its name to Barisan Nasional?

Not to mention the various allegations of voter fraud, like the one highlighted on this very blog yesterday. Walski came across another allegation, this time highlighted by Zorro-Unmasked earlier today.

When will Malaysians – at this juncture Sarawakians in particular – wake up to the fact that BN doesn’t play fair during elections? Yes, they have done much good since this nation gained independence – no one can deny that.

A government, once elected, has responsibilities to its subjects, regardless of which party or coalition is given the mandate. The argument that only BN is fit to rule because they have for the past half-century is fallacious. Yes, the have the most experience doing it, but that doesn’t mean that only they have the perpetual right to.

But together with the good, we also need to look at all the bad that’s happened in the process – the steady erosion of basic rights, the endemic increase in corrupt practices, and the destruction of trusted public institutions like the judiciary. These are just a few of the things that have happened under BN’s watch (and the Alliance before that).

For Sarawak in particular, look at what has happened to her resources. In particular, the rain forest, much of it deforested to make way for palm oil cultivation (via Aliran). And then you have the ongoing tussle of land under the Native Customary Rights (NCR) laws.

It would seem, however, that there is still a fear of change, despite the growing evidence that the current regime is far from perfect. But a democracy facilitates, even demands, change of regime. If what we’re practicing is truly democracy, why the unlevel playing field when election time comes?

In an imaginary world, far far away in a conjured galaxy, spice was the key to power. Those who are fans of science fiction, in particular that of Frank Herbert, would probably be familiar with the phrase "He who controls the spice controls the universe."

Today, in the real world, it’s information that’s the key to power. And at this juncture in Sarawak, he who controls the information, controls the election.

There is another well-known quote from Dune, Frank Herbert’s novel from which the spicy quote came from – fear is the mind-killer. And that is exactly what the voters of Sarawak must be conscious of avoiding – fear. Particular fear that has been instilled over the years, that all will come to naught should BN be ousted.

That possibility, though, is part and parcel of the democratic process. No one single party or coalition has the exclusive right to rule in perpetuity. When it’s time to go, it’s time to go. To believe that BN is the only rightful party that must rule is to deny democracy itself.

On that note, Walski wishes the people of Sarawak well, and hopes that they vote wisely on April 16. If you think that the time has come for change, then exercise your democratic right to facilitate that change. After all, as a very wise man once said, there is nothing to fear but fear itself