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Malaysian Authorities Accuse Reporter of Online Misinformation about Virus

Nisha David and Hadi Azmi
Kuala Lumpur
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A health official wheels a woman to a bus as she and other Malaysian citizens arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang after being evacuated from China’s Wuhan city, the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak, Feb. 4, 2020.
A health official wheels a woman to a bus as she and other Malaysian citizens arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang after being evacuated from China’s Wuhan city, the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak, Feb. 4, 2020.
Handout photo from Malaysia’s Ministry of Health via AP

A Malaysian journalist was charged here Wednesday for allegedly spreading misinformation about the novel coronavirus via social media, as the country’s attorney general called for expanded legal powers to stop “rumor mongering” during the global health emergency.

Wan Noor Hayati Wan Alias pleaded not guilty at the Kuala Lumpur Magistrate’s Court to three counts of violating a section of the penal code that prohibits the publication of any statement, rumor or report with the intention of, or likelihood, of causing fear or alarm among the public.

She is a newspaper reporter with Berita Harian, a Malay-language daily. If convicted, she could face up to two years in prison for each count, or be punished with a fine or both.

Wan Noor Hayati is the first person to be charged in Malaysia over allegations of spreading misinformation about the coronavirus.

Police Inspector-General Abdul Hamid Bador warned that the authorities would go after anyone who spread fake news or information, which could cause public panic and disorder.

“The actions would be irresponsible and unfair to the people because it could simultaneously invite a more serious situation to the harmony (in the country),” Bernama, the state-run news agency, quoted him as saying on Wednesday.

“The police view seriously the actions of those quarters who spread invalid news, and firm and prompt action will be taken to curb them,’’ the nation’s police chief said.

As of Wednesday the outbreak of the virus, which started in the Chinese city of Wuhan, had topped more than 24,500 cases in 24 countries – but concentrated mostly in China, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The outbreak to date has led to nearly 500 deaths in China and one death in the Philippines. On Wednesday, Malaysian health authorities confirmed two more cases of people infected with the virus, bringing the nationwide total to 12. Three are Malaysian citizens and the rest are Chinese nationals, officials said.

The charges against Wan Noor Hayati accuse her of publishing three posts on her personal Facebook page on Jan. 26, under the pseudonym “Ibu Yati,” with the intention of creating public fear.

All the posts have since been removed. It remained unclear whether any were linked to her journalism.

According to Malaysiakini, a local news publication, police shared a screenshot of one of her posts. It appeared to take a dig at Lim Guan Eng, Malaysia’s finance minister who is a member of the ethnic Chinese minority.

“This morning, the news said that 1,000 people from China had arrived in Penang … perhaps there would only be an emergency once LGE gets the virus?” according to the screenshot of the message written originally in Malay.

Wan Noor Hayati, who was freed on bail Wednesday, could not be reached immediately for comment.

Top prosecutor: free speech no license for lies

Later in the day, Attorney General Tommy Thomas issued a strongly worded warning against “lies and rumor mongering” in connection with the viral outbreak.

“No society can permit truth to be a casualty in such circumstances,” he said in a three-page statement. “When epidemics occur, panic must be prevented among the citizenry … Lies about the origin, scale and magnitude of the disease must not be permitted because they endanger public safety.”

“[I] have decided that it is in the national interest that persons who initiate and disseminate lies on any issue relating to the ‘coronavirus’ on the internet shall be investigated, and if a case exists, be charged,” Thomas said.

His office would charge individuals suspected of such online activity under Section 505(b) of the penal code, the provision under which Wan Noor Hayati was charged.

Thomas also called for suspects in such cases to face potential prosecution under the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act. However, the law’s relevant provision would need to be expanded through a parliamentary amendment to enable his office to prosecute those cases, the attorney general noted.

Malaysia’s constitution guarantees free speech but, Thomas said, this does “not give a license to propagate lies.”

“The phenomenon is compounded by our obsession to introduce racial or religious overtones into every issue of public life. Hence, lies on the internet connecting ‘coronavirus’ to any particular ethnic or religious group is not only deplorable but inflammatory in our plural society,” he added.

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