THE Malaysian Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) is said to be looking into strengthening the punishment for those found guilty of leaking official secrets, causing an uproar among the journalism community here.
Attorney-General Mohamed Apandi Ali revealed his intentions Saturday in an interview with local Chinese newspaper Sin Chew Daily, adding that it was a result of the increase in cases of official secrets being leaked to journalists, who often reported quoting ‘sources’.
He had said the AGC was contemplating amending the Official Secrets Act 1972 (OSA) to crack down on those who leak government secrets, including civil servants, members of the public and journalists who refuse to reveal their sources.
The amendments being considered would include an increased punishment of life imprisonment and 10 strokes of the cane for those found guilty under the Act.
“An assault against freedom of expression.”
Currently, the punishment for leaking official secrets is one to seven years’ imprisonment.
“We may charge journalists who refuse to reveal their sources. If I obtain 90 percent of evidence, I will charge the journalist, editor, assistant editor and editor-in-chief. I am serious, no kidding. We have too many cases of secrets being leaked in Malaysia,” he said.
Mohamed Apandi focused on journalists in particular, saying those who claimed journalistic ethics to protect their sources could be considered as collaborators with potential saboteurs, and that this practice would endanger the country’s security.
Media practitioners have since slammed the attorney-general’s comments, with many viewing the proposal as an attempt to intimidate journalists and their sources.
The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) issued a statement on its Facebook page, calling the move “an assault against freedom of expression”.
“This is an indicator of a government who is intolerant of criticism and fearful of accountability,” it said.
“We wish to remind the AG that the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 10 of the Federal Constitution includes the right to information or simply put as the right to know,” it added, also stating that the reported leaks in recent times were an indication of failed processes within the government to address issues of accountability and transparency.
The National Union of Journalists Malaysia (NUJM) also expressed its dissatisfaction, saying it was wholeheartedly against the proposal and considered it a restriction aimed at preventing reporters from carrying out their duties.
Malaysia is currently ranked at #147 out of 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index.
“Journalists are bound to uphold two main principles — freedom to find and report news in a truthful manner, as well as the right to fair comment without pressure from any parties,” said NUJM secretary-general Schave Jerome De Rozario in a statement.
He also cautioned journalists to carefully verify their sources of information, and in light of the AG’s comments, to be prepared to operate in a more hostile environment.
Additionally, the Institute of Journalists Malaysia (IoJ) was concerned with any attempts to increase punitive measures against those seeking to reveal the truth on cases of public interest.
“Individuals who choose to act as whistleblowers and journalists who decide to run with the information after having performed due diligence, should not be penalized for seeking to highlight issues that deserve public attention,” it said in a statement.
The IoJ also pushed for a Freedom of Information Act to replace the OSA, which is considered by many to be ‘archaic’ and ‘draconian’.
It believes that a Freedom on Information Act would “better serve national interests by allowing public access to information and ensuring that those elected and appointed into positions of power would be held accountable and bound to the principles of transparency as the country looks to stamp out corruption and abuse of power”.
Former Attorney-General Abu Talib Othman also added his two cents, saying that the proposal was regressive, as the trend was now moving towards greater freedom of information.
“The world is moving towards more transparency, not secrecy,” Abu Talib told Malaysiakini.
Meanwhile, on social media, Malaysians have aired their own opinions on the issue.
UMNO leaders are defending the AG's proposal to make the OSA even more draconian with such vigour. I wonder why.
— dr Syahredzan (@syahredzan) February 9, 2016
— greeneyesjelly (@greeneyesjelly) February 7, 2016
— saroki (@saroki19) February 7, 2016
— Vijayasuria S. ♌ (@vjxuria) February 7, 2016
Malaysia is currently ranked at #147 out of 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index, an annual report released by Reporters Without Borders which highlights worldwide standings in freedom of information. The country has seen an overall decline in press freedom over the years — it is at its lowest position since 2002, with its highest ranking in 2006, at #92.
Its Prime Minister Najib Razak has also recently been linked to scandals involving ‘donations’ being deposited into personal accounts and mismanaged finances under state fund 1MDB.
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