Malaysia to set up election reform panel

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian premier Najib Razak said his government will set up a bipartisan parliamentary committee on election reform, a month after police quashed a rally demanding changes to the polling process.

Najib said the panel, comprising government and opposition members, will have a mandate to discuss "everything that needs to be done," state media reported late Monday.

"This is so that we can reach a consensus in the next election without any suspicion about manipulation by the government," Najib added.

The announcement comes after riot police last month used tear gas and water cannon to disperse the largest rally the country has seen in four years, arresting 1,600 people.

Thousands gathered in downtown Kuala Lumpur on July 9 to demand electoral reforms as part of a rally organised by Bersih 2.0, a coalition of nongovernmental organisations.

It has called for reforms including the use of indelible ink to prevent multiple voting, and equal access for all parties to the mainstream media, which is largely government-linked and controlled through printing permits.

Najib also criticised his own government's handling of foreign media reports on the Bersih rally after it censored sections of an article in The Economist, citing "incorrect information" on last month's protest.

"The very act of censoring it made a bigger story than the article itself. If the international media wants to criticise us, let it be," he was quoted as saying by the Star daily.

"If they cross the line, then we have to resolve (the matter) through legal means and (suing for) defamation is one of the means," the paper quoted him as saying.

Malaysia was ranked 141st out of 178 countries in the 2010 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, because of its tight controls on print and broadcast media.

Najib's administration has to call elections by 2013, but is widely expected to seek a new mandate by next year.

His Barisan Nasional coalition has ruled Malaysia for half a century, but won a reduced majority at the last poll in 2008.