The conduct of journalist has been called into question by police as a contributing factor to incidents of media practitioners being beaten by gangs of cops during the recent Bersih 3.0 pro-electoral reform rally.
“According to guidelines... they are not supposed to put themselves in a war zone while doing coverage. During Bersih, they put themselves in a war zone.
“They were between the authorities and rally participants. If a riot occurs, they will be trapped between the two,” argued ACP Jamaluddin Abdul Rahman at the Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) inquiry into alleged human rights abuses by authorities during the April 28 rally.
He was cross-examining the 27th inquiry witness, V Anbalagan ( right ), who is the secretary-general of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).
While Anbalagan agreed that a guideline recently published by NUJ did indeed say what Jamaluddin posited, he disputed that Bersih 3.0 was equivalent to a warzone.
“And even if they were trapped between the two, police should not have assaulted journalists,” countered the NUJ official.
In addition, the union-published guide launched early this year, barely one month before the Bersih 3.0 rally, outlined requirements that journalists need to follow when covering incidents labeled as “social unrest”, under which peaceful assemblies with the potential of turning into a riot is one.
Such requirements included wearing bullet-resistant combat jackets, with or without extra armour plates, boots and other protective paraphernalia.
Journalists are also advised by the guide to wear clearly visible identification to show their media affiliations and not dress in protest colours.
All these, argued Jamaluddin further, are guidelines that may help minimise any possible threats to the media.
Suhakam commissioner Khaw Lake Tee, who led the three-member inquiry panel, then made the distinction that the NUJ guide to journalists was intended to protect journalists from protesters and does not describe their relationship with police, from whom no threat was ever envisioned.
'Guide copied from an exting guide'
Agreeing with Khaw, Anbalagan added that the guide was copied from an existing guide from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and in the Malaysian context the terms social unrest and warzone do not hold true.
Jamaluddin also repeated police claims that part of the reason why journalists came to be targeted by police teams was because police were having difficulty to tell them apart from bystanders and rally participants.
He argued that the failure of some reporters to wear proper tags and distinctive identifying clothing led to an “identification crisis” where police could not differentiate the press members inter-mixed with the crowd.
Jamaluddin hinted that a portion of the blame for the incidents lie with journalists themselves, adding that by the NUJ’s own address in the guide, the journalist fraternity are facing an erosion of experienced veterans, with many young and inexperienced members being deployed to cover rallies like Bersih.
Anbalagan replied that prior to Bersih 3.0, they were many other rallies and journalists have been covering them without any danger posed to them by police, who had no problem identifying them doing their jobs before.
More so, he stood firm in his stand that based on the reports from 12 NUJ members who were assaulted by gangs of cops during the rally, police who attacked them knew very well they were from the media and indeed targeted them to stop them from covering police brutality.
He also countered Jamaluddin’s claim that many journalists on the ground are greenhorns.
“Many are young, yes, but to say that they are inexperienced, I disagree... many have covered Bersih 2.0 (and other rallies) before,” responded Anbalagan.
The inquiry was convened by Suhakam after journalists rose up in arms after more than a dozen of their colleagues were injured by police officers or had photographic equipment damaged or confiscated by cops while recording cases of police violence during the pro-electoral reform rally.
This was during the April 28 Bersih 3.0 gathering which saw over 100,000 people flooding the streets of Kuala Lumpur to ask for clean and fair elections.
The initially peaceful rally turned sour after a small group breached a police cordon, leading a police response that was termed brutal and disproportionate that saw protesters and media personnel assaulted and hurt.