A Malaysian Facebook user who posted controversial material about the new coronavirus (2019-nCoV) could face two years in jail if she is found guilty of transgressing section 505 (b) of the Malaysian Criminal Code, which prohibits publishing and spreading rumors “ susceptible to frighten or alarm the population ”.
Wan Noor Hayati Wan Alias was accused of posting three posts on Facebook on January 26 that would allegedly contain rumors and racist content regarding the worldwide outbreak of the virus. Hayati pleaded not guilty on February 5 to a court in Kuala Lumpur, capital of the country.
Several media outlets have urged the charges to be dropped and have said that the authorities acted punitively.
What complicates the situation is that Hayati is an award-winning journalist who has written in media such as Berita Harian and the New Straits Times. She is also general treasurer of the National Union of Journalists of Peninsular Malaysia (NUJM).
Although the attorney general, Tan Sri Tommy Thomas, did not refer to any particular case, his office published a statement on February 5 in which he explains why the government plans to punish all who disinform about the virus:
Lies about the origins, scale and magnitude of the disease must not be permitted because they endanger public safety. That rumor monitoring is repugnant to common decency is most pronounced at such times in our national life. The credibility of the internet as the pre-eminent source of news and information is therefore vital.
False facts about the origin, scale and magnitude of the disease should not be allowed because they endanger public safety. This diffusion of rumors that disgusts decency is accentuated more in those moments of our national life. Therefore, the credibility of the internet as a prominent source of news and information is vital.
The NUJM defended Hayati and urged the Government not to restrict freedom of expression:
We believe that as a journalist she had the right to voice out her concerns to the members of the public… who are mainly not well informed by the government over the situation of the coronavirus outbreak.
We believe that, as a journalist, he had the right to express his concerns to the people … who in general have not received good information from the Government about the outbreak of coronavirus.
Some commented that the NUJM was wrong to defend it, while others have described the journalist's publications as irresponsible.
For its part, the Center for Independent Journalism reminded the authorities that there are other ways to respond to statements that do not reflect the information emanating from government institutions.
We stress that legal remedies are just part of the many tools that can be employed to counter disinformation and misleading statements. A holistic and proportionate response would include having efficient and broad channels of information from the government and media, accessible and reliable means for the public to verify information and use of reporting facilities within social media applications for misinformation to be removed.
We want to underline that legal measures are just some of the many tools that can respond to misinformation and misleading claims. A comprehensive and proportional response would involve, among other things, having effective and comprehensive information channels from the Government and the media, accessible and reliable ways for people to verify the information and also use the means provided by social networks to report and eliminate Bad information
2 / My quick personal opinion is that while I agree some restrictions are necessary in times of crisis, dragging someone under the Penal Code is unjustified. Restrictions need not be through punitive measures in this case.
– Gayathry V (@gayathry) February 8, 2020
2 / In a nutshell, my personal opinion is that although I agree that there should be some restriction in times of crisis, imputing someone through criminal proceedings is unjustified. There is no reason for restrictions to be made through punitive measures in this case.
In a Twitter thread, Gayathry Venkiteswaran, a Malaysian media expert, valued the situation and express his concern about the “disproportionate” response of the State.
… We also need to look at the charges in the broader context – did all those who were arrested really bring about harm and were they influential enough to incite actions / panic? Maybe building confidence is more important than trying to nab people who share their content, even when some of these can be considered irresponsible. Let's not be too quick to validate sending people to prisons when there are real speech concerns that could be more harmful, and we need to find solutions for those.
We must also consider these accusations within a more general context. Did all detainees cause damage and did they really have the necessary influence to incite people to act or to panic? Perhaps building trust is more important than stopping people who spread content, even when they can be considered irresponsible. We do not applaud so quickly that people are sent to jail since there are elements that affect freedom of expression in a much more dangerous way than those that need to be dealt with in the first place.
Hayati is on bail and will appear in court on March 11.
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