No ABCs of protest reporting

Chua Sue-Ann | Nov 13, 07
ON the ground, amidst the rain and thousands of protesters, you’re living in momentary frames. You wait for the next move, wait for something to happen. All your senses are on high alert. The air is unbearably thick with tension. There is nothing predictable about a planned public rally. No amount of preparation is enough (and believe me, we prepared as if we were going for a space mission!).

I found that out the hard way at the Bersih public rally for clean and fair elections last Saturday. As a student intern, I was at the protest with the Malaysiakini team. Pasar Seni, of the designated meeting spots, was a milder affair compared to the unnecessary chaos that erupted at Masjid Jamek.
Organisers of the public gathering had originally planned to gather at Dataran Merdeka before marching to the Istana Negara to hand in a memorandum to the Yang Dipertuan Agong. However, due to police lockdown of Dataran Merdeka, four alternative meeting points were designated; Pasar Seni, Masjid Jamek, Sogo and Masjid Negara.
The memorandum was drawn up by Bersih, a coalition of almost 70 civil society groups and five opposition political parties. They were appealing for the King’s intervention in cleaning up the elections, which are expected to be called in the next few months. The four key reforms requested are the use of indelible ink to prevent multiple voting, a clean-up of the electoral roll to remove phantom voters, the abolishment of postal voting and equal and free access to the media.
The 500-strong crowd, consisting of concerned citizens and local civil society members, started marching from Pasar Seni at 2.30pm after receiving instructions. PKR information chief Tian Chua, Tenaganita director Irene Fernandez, prominent human rights lawyer Haris Ibrahim and Amnesty International Malaysia director Shannon Shah were among those congregated there.
Snap judgment required
Walking from to Istana Negara via Dataran Merdeka, the five hundred Bersih rally participants encountered almost a hundred police and anti-riot Federal Reserve Unit (FRU) officers. A minor clash ensued as the crowd attempted to barge through police lines. Anti-riot police furiously shoved the crowd back with their shields. The crowd was forced to the left side of the road to prevent them from proceeding to Dataran Merdeka. Several people were beaten, but nobody was seriously injured.
In that moment of panic and disorder, everything I had learnt in journalism class went out the window. I guess, nobody can teach you the ABCs of reporting a protest. Every little step requires a snap judgment, whether it is to move left with the crowd, to photograph from behind police lines or to stand afar. When batons are flying, the crowd erratic and people being shoved left, right and centre, all rationale dissolves. You’re on a “fight or flight” autopilot to hopefully, remain unharmed and at the same time, pray that you’ve managed to capture great photographs.
Watching the anti-riot policemen drag helpless protesters, I felt a little conflicted. My heart was telling me to help, do something, anything! But my mind was sternly reprimanding the heart, “No, journalists don’t interfere. You are here to observe and report. Do that.”
The unsung heroes of the day were undoubtedly the Badan Amal team from PAS. The maroon-clad army, played a crucial role at the rally, not just directing crowds and traffic. These brave men were right in the thick of things, protecting frontline protesters and pulling people to safety when clashes occurred.
Rally leaders then attempted to negotiate with policemen to let them pass peacefully. However, the crowd was told to either disperse or wait until a senior officer arrives to negotiate. By 3pm, the number of protesters had dwindled as many had discovered an alternative route via the Dayabumi building.
Around twenty protesters remained near Pasar Seni, awaiting further instruction. At the frontline were Irene Fernandez and several women and children pleading with the policemen to allow the rally to proceed peacefully. The crowd were chanting Daulat Tuanku (long live the King) and Allahuakbar (God is great) throughout their stand-off with the police.
Things nobody can teach you
Twenty minutes later, rally leaders of the Pasar Seni crowd broke news that two to three thousand people had managed to reach Istana Negara. Everyone burst out in joy, giving thanks to God for that good news. The remaining few dispersed quietly, shaking hands with policemen, thanking them, on their way out. Many joined the long trail of protesters walking towards Istana Negara in the rain to join the thousands more who were already there.
The King’s representatives received the memorandum just before 4pm. Some of the Bersih delegates who delivered the memorandum included PKR de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim, Parliamentary Opposition Leader Lim Kit Siang, PAS president Hadi Awang and DAP secretary- general Lim Guan Eng. After the memorandum was delivered, the crowds were ordered to disperse peacefully. Many made their way, on foot, to Masjid Negara for prayers.
News of police brutality towards protesters at Masjid Jamek earlier in the afternoon surfaced amongst the crowd still hanging around the streets. The full impact of the violence only sank in much later, after watching Al Jazeera’s great coverage of the rally. It was very confronting to see tear gas bullets and water canons fired so liberally at the crowd of almost 2,000.
I’ll confess that part of me wished I was at the area to witness the chaos. But another side of me wonders if I would have known what to do in those circumstances. Even veteran journalists found themselves lost in the thick of it all, what more I, an aspiring journalist?
There are many things you cannot learn from books and classes. There are certain things nobody can teach you. There are certain times where you must rely on faith and good intuition alone. This is one of those things, as I’ve learnt last Saturday.
CHUA SUE-ANN is a Malaysiakini intern.