Malaysia: Journalist charged for coronavirus Facebook posts

Wan Noor Hayati Wan Alias, a journalist and union activist was charged today in a Kuala Lumpur court for Facebook posts on the novel coronavirus and Malaysia’s finance minister, Lim Guan Eng. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its affiliate the National Union of Journalists Peninsular Malaysia (NUJM) urge for the charges to be dropped.

Wan Noor Hayati Wan Alias. Credit: Azneal Ishak/Malaysiakini.com

Hayati appeared in Kuala Lumpur Magistrate’s court today, February 5, charged under section 505 (b) of the Penal code for posting statements on her Facebook account “Ibu Yati”. The charges allege the journalists’ social media posts violated the code for publishing and circulating rumours with the intention to cause fear or alarm to the public.

The charge sheet stated Hayati allegedly made three posts, which were read at 10pm on January 26 by Bukit Aman Commercial Crime Investigation Department. One post said “This morning, the news said that 1,000 people from China had arrived in Penang … I wonder if LGE (Lim Guan Eng) will call for an emergency or curfew if he is affected?”.

Hayati was unrepresented and pled not guilty before Magistrate Tawfiq Affandy Chin. While the prosecutor requested the judge refuse bail, bail was set at RM 12,000 (USD 2,910), or RM 4,000 (USD 972) for each charge. The case is scheduled to be heard on March 11. If found guilty, Hayati faces up to two years in prison, a fine or both.

An award-winning journalist who has written for various media outlets, namely Berita Harian and NewStraits Times, Hayati currently also serves as an executive member and deputy general treasurer forNUJM. According to NST, the legislation the journalist has been charged under is commonly used tosilence critics, opposition leaders and activists.

The coronavirus has opened the gates on a spate of arrests under the guise of spreading misinformation or causing public alarm in the region, with an increasing number of governments using new and existing legislation to criminalise journalists and others. Between Malaysia, India, Thailand, Indonesia and Hong Kong at least 16 people are reported as being arrested for social media posts on the virus.

Malaysia was among the first countries in the world to introduce anti-fake news legislation, but the legislation was repealed in October 2019. In the case of Hayati, provisions under the penal code have been used to similar effect.

The Malaysian finance minister Lim Guan Eng (LGE) mentioned in Hayati’s post is well known for his tactics aimed at silencing the media. In 2011, he sued two media outlets for defamation for being named a “Singapore agent”. The case concluded in 2019 with the complainant receiving MYR 650,000 (USD 157,880) in damages.

The NUJM said taking action against journalists or media in a democratic country like Malaysia for expressing free speech will be seen as a “regression in our democracy in the eyes of the public, not mentioning the international society as a whole”.

“We have no objection if the authorities wanted to investigate in combating fake news, but journalists are bound by parameters of ethical journalism and the rule of law. We also 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.”

NUJM launched a fund raising to pay Hayati’s bail and expressed its gratitude to fellow journalists and lawyer New Sin Yew for offering his pro bono services. Hayati is a mother of a 10-year-old son.

South East Asia Journalists Union (SEAJU) also regret the charges. “Her statement was something any citizen of a democracy is entitled to make. We condemn the use of the penal code to put anyone in jail to spread the information”.

The IFJ said: “Today in Malaysia we’ve seen the criminalisation of a journalist, which follows a regional trend of clampdowns on free speech under the guise of alleged misinformation, of causing public alarm or spreading fake news. The Ibu Yati case highlights the desperate need for an independent adjudicator such as a media council to review cases in Malaysia – not for journalists to be threatened with jail for simply posting a question or comment on Facebook. We condemn the charges made again Ibu Yati and urge authorities to drop all charges and urgently review Malaysia’s penal code.”

Update on February 11, 2020 to the statement issued on February 5, 2020 which gives clarification to the charges under the penal code.

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