Call on Abdullah to repudiate the deputy home minister's statement that a Freedom of Information Act is not suitable for Malaysia as it is such an attitude which is responsible for the "First World Infrastructure, Third World Mentality" Malaysian malaise

Media Comment
by Lim Kit Siang

(Penang,  Tuesday): Acting Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi should declare whether the statement by Deputy Home Minister, Datuk Chor Chee Heung yesterday that a Freedom of Information Act was not suitable for Malaysia represented his stand and the outcome of his four-year study of the memorandum for a free and responsible press by some 1,000 journalists which was first presented to him on World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 1999, shortly after he was appointed to the important and powerful office of Home Minister.

Chor made the shocking statement at the United Nations Development Programme's National Conference on "The Future of the Media in a Knowledge Society: Rights, Responsibilities and Risks"

Abdullah had given a solemn undertaking to Malaysian journalists four years ago that he would give their memorandum calling for a repeal of the Printing Presses and Publications Act and other repressive laws fettering the development of a free and responsible press "serious consideration".

A fifth World Press Freedom Day is just a month away since the solemn undertaking to Malaysian journalists by Abdullah when he first received the memorandum, and he owes an obligation to Malaysian journalists, the people and also to himself to give a proper response and accounting of the outcome of his promised "serious consideration" of the memorandum by a thousand Malaysian journalists for a free and responsible press some four years ago.

Chor's statement that Malaysia is not ready for information freedom is most unfortunate and regrettable, going against the trend of greater transparency and good governance in the last decade, as evident from the fact that over 40 countries now have comprehensive laws upholding the right to information and facilitating access to state records, including Japan and South Korea, while over 30 more are in the process of enacting such legislation.

Abdullah should repudiate Chor's statement as it is exactly such an attitude which is responsible for the "First World Infrastructure, Third World Mentality" Malaysian malaise which was brilliantly diagnosed by the Acting Prime Minister last month.

Chor's responses during the question-and-answer session was most revealing in throwing light on a very confused "Third World Mentality".

Responding to a comment that the Health Ministry should have released the statistics on dengue deaths in recent months, Chor said he also felt that "it does not serve the government any good to keep the statistics from the public because it is only an endemic and not an epidemic".

Chor probably thought he wanted to show that he was more enlightened and liberal than current practices - as well as indirectly strike a blow for the MCA "A" faction against the MCA B Minister, the Health Minister, Datuk Chua Jui Meng - except that he got caught in a trap and illogic of his own making.

What Chor failed to realize is that if statistics on dengue deaths should be made public during an endemic, then it is all the more imperative that they should be made public during an epidemic - as it is the most important and effective first step to create nation-wide alert and awareness to bring the killer dengue outbreak under control. In actual fact, the current dengue menace in Malaysia is not just an epidemic but a pandemic (as warned by the World Health Organisation last July and as good as admitted by Chua's press secretary).

The denial of the right to information about dengue cases and fatalities in the worst dengue epidemic in the nation's history is the most vivid example to illustrate Malaysia going backwards when the rest of the world are making big strides in promoting and protecting information rights.

I had lodged a formal report to Suhakam on the grave human rights violations of the rights to life, information and a free press as highlighted by the dengue epidemic, but I do not really know what Suhakam had done or could do.

The participation by the head of advisory and international division at the Attorney-General's Chambers, Idrus Harun, at the UN media conference was a big let-down, and the Attorney-General Datuk Abdul Gani Patail should conduct a review of the participation of the AG's Chambers in future public conferences and seminars to ensure that it reflects an innovative and reformist and not a conservative and reactionary law agency.

Idrus Harun, for instance, said that "unlike the United States", freedom of the media and information was not clearly spelt out under the Malaysian Constitution and there could be contentions over whether this freedom was part of freedom of expression as provided for in Article 10. He should have followed up such an analysis with the proposal that the Attorney-General's Chambers would propose a constitutional amendment to spell out the "right to information" to remove any such ambiguity!

Idrus Harun made the unhelpful statement that any freedom was not absolute and this freedom of expression in any country must have its limitations and barriers - when no one had ever demanded absolute or unlimited freedoms and which was a most irresponsible refuge of those who want to evade arguments for legitimate protection for right to information and a free and responsible press.


* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman