February 7, 2016
Malaysia’s Attorney-General Apandi Ali told: Respect Citizens’ Right to Participation in Governance
by Edgardo Legaspi
COMMENT | It was a rather unfortunate statement from Attorney-General Mohamed Apandi Ali (on harsher punishments for press who report on information leaks), one which may move Malaysia further backwards in its path toward transparency, accountability and democracy.
His reference to China is telling – as this is one of the most restrictive countries in the world – and it may indicate the direction he wants to the country to go. Malaysia has two states with Freedom of Information (FOI) laws (Selangor and Penang). This is a rarity in the region (only Indonesia and Thailand have FOI laws).
Now Apandi is threatening to strengthen the Official Secrets Act (OSA) by imposing harsher penalties on violators – and including medieval corporal punishment at that.
The A-G need not be too literal when looking at the constitution. It is true that the ‘right to know’ is not explicitly written in it, but it is generally accepted that freedom of information is an essential component to the practice of freedom of expression, as a guarantee to ensure public participation in governance.
This view is too literal. Is he also going to argue that Malaysia need not guarantee press freedom because it is not written in the constitution?He may well also argue that since Malaysia has not ratified the international covenant on civil and political rights, which is more explicit on FOI (“right to seek, receive… information”), that the country is not obliged to guarantee this right.
Secrecy means something to hide
As chief lawyer of the state, such a statement is irresponsible, as his duty is to promote the rule of law and public interest. It is not his job to defend politicians and government officials. On the contrary, his role is to protect the country and its people from abuse committed by such people.
The problem is that official secrecy is often used to hide corruption and state abuses.In these instances, whistleblowers must be protected as these disclosures are in the interest of the public and the country.
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Apandi’s statements are also a serious threat to freedom of the press.By threatening to prosecute journalists who disseminate information from whistleblowers, he is in effect telling the media to avoid covering such stories, or else face the risk of a criminal case.
The obligation of the media is to the public – to facilitate free speech and public participation by keeping citizens informed, especially about public affairs. To raise this threat of prosecution by forcing journalists to reveal their sources is a direct attack on the public trust that the media is trying to build.
Protection of journalistic sources is sacred in keeping this trust.It is precisely because whistleblowers face the threats and the risk of attacks from powerful people that protection of sources is at the core of journalistic ethics.
EDGARDO LEGASPI is Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) Executive Director.