Why The Govt Has Charged An Award-Winning Journalist For Her FB Posts About Coronavirus

The journalist has pleaded not guilty to causing public mischief.

Cover image via Yusof Mat Isa/Malay Mail & Twitter @The_Endie

Back in January, when China announced that they had identified a new SARS-like virus in Wuhan — later named 2019-nCoV — the job to curtail the spread of misinformation fell on media and journalists

The new virus from China reached Malaysia's shores on 25 January, when the first set of positive cases were announced by Health director general (D-G) Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah.

And as the virus from the Chinese city of Wuhan continues to spread — as of 6 February, it has infected over 28,000 people around 28 countries — people in media were expected to practise truthfulness, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability when it came to reporting about the new virus.

Some, however, chose to ignore the basic journalistic code of ethics and decided to spread not only misinformation but were also caught practising prejudice in their reporting.

The government kept warning against such practices amidst the spread of fake news in Malaysia.

The police and the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) then went to work, arresting about a dozen individuals throughout the country for posting misinformation about the virus.

In this image dated 4 February, a health official is seen wheeling a woman to a bus as she and other Malaysian citizens arrive at KLIA in Sepang after being evacuated from Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak.

Image via Ministry of Health

The severity of the spread of the misinformation was highlighted when a winner of over a dozen journalism awards was charged with three counts of causing public mischief in the Magistrate's Court yesterday

On Wednesday, 5 February, 41-year-old journalist Wan Noor Hayati was charged with consciously using her public Facebook account under the name of 'Ibu Yati' with the intention of causing public fear.

According to Malay Mail, Hayati is working under New Straits Times Press Berhad and has won over 20 journalism awards including the Kajai Award in 2014 and Tokoh Wartawan Rakyat in 2016.

Charged under Section 505(b) of the Penal Code, Hayati has pleaded not guilty to three charges of causing public mischief. However, if found guilty, she may go to jail for two years or be fined, or both.

The journalist pictured at the Kuala Lumpur High Court.

Image via Yusof Mat Isa/Malay Mail

The charges against the journalist come after she alleged that the Malaysian government is "scared of banning" Chinese nationals

In her Facebook posts, Hayati had insinuated that this was because of the alleged grip of control DAP's Lim Guan Eng (LGE) or Chinese education group Dong Zong has over the Malaysian government.

The former Berita Harian journalist also alleged that the government will only declare an emergency with regards to the Wuhan virus in Malaysia when LGE gets infected.

In another post on her Facebook account under the name of "Ibu Yati", Hayati claimed that one person in Sabah died due to the new virus from China after she ate mandarin oranges.

Three of Hayati's Facebook posts that have landed her in trouble with Malaysia's Penal Code were uploaded on Twitter yesterday, 5 February by an account that debunks misinformation.

A check by SAYS found that the Twitter account @KonfemSahih is followed by DAP deputy chairman, Gobind Singh Deo, who is also the Minister of Communications and Multimedia.

While Hayati faced criticism for her posts from netizens, she has found support from the country's journalists union that said that the journalist had freedom of speech to raise her concerns about the virus

Appealing against the charges, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) secretary-general Chin Sung Chew said that Hayati has the right as a journalist to voice her concerns publicly.

"This is due to the anxiety which was deeply felt and who are mainly not well-informed by the government over the situation of the coronavirus outbreak," read the statement issued by the union.

The NUJ's suggestion that the Malaysian government is not doing a good enough job at informing the public about the new virus comes as a representative from the World Health Organisation (WHO) commended the local authorities for being transparent with its information on infection cases.

"We have been sharing information very closely with the authorities in Malaysia, and the Malaysian authorities with WHO, and I think Malaysia is doing very, very well. They are very open, very transparent," WHO representative Dr Ying-Ru Lo was quoted as saying by Malay Mail.

Meanwhile, taking account of the rumour-mongering on the Internet, the Attorney General's Chambers issued a statement from A-G Tommy Thomas, in which he said that while people have freedom of speech, they do not have the licence to propagate lies about the outbreak

"No society can permit truth to be a casualty in such circumstances," the A-G said in the statement.

"When epidemics occur, panic must be prevented among the citizenry. Instead, calmness and firmness of authority should guide the people on the origins, scale, and magnitude of the epidemic.... The rumour mongering is repugnant to common decency... The credibility of the internet as the pre-eminent source of news and information is therefore viral," read the three-page statement posted on Twitter.

Read more SAYS stories about the outbreak here:

SAYS Copy Editor Alyssa J. Oon contributed to this story.

Editor's note: This story is the personal opinion of the writer. You too can submit a story as a SAYS reader by emailing us at [email protected]

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