Thu, 25 Dec 2003

Affluence and freedom of information

Sonia Randhawa Director Centre for Independent Journalism Kuala Lumpur

Malaysia's media laws are among the most restrictive in the region. Media ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few well-connected political parties or individuals. Blatant scare tactics are used during elections, fear of instability blown into fear of widespread civil war. Legislation allows detention without trial and includes numerous restrictions on freedom of information and the right to publish.

The government's position is that economic growth means that there is no need to know. Yet keeping a lid on information may not be in the country's or even the government's best interests. And the lack of information is having an effect on the things that people are most concerned about, even down to the water they drink and the air they breathe.

Earlier this year, SARS struck the region and the contrasting responses of China and Singapore clearly showed the deadly effects of this information blackout.

Malaysia followed Singapore's example, with daily press briefings held by the health minister. He kept the latest figures handy, and despite a confusing array of "suspected", "possible" and "likely" cases, journalists and newspapers got the information they needed. The problem was that people didn't believe them. At public meetings in Penang, people were jittery. Masks made a fleeting appearance in the streets of KL. Everyone had a brother's girlfriend's uncle's second wife's sister who sat next to someone in an aeroplane who had SARS.

In the SARS case, a gag order was initially issued. Then all information was centralized and distributed through the Health Minister. In retrospect these were sensible precautions, as panic over SARS caused almost as much damage as the illness itself.

However, the government suffered from a credibility gap. SARS didn't just hit those affected. It hit restaurants and hotels, it hit revenue and earnings. And the government has put these as a higher priority than health in the past.

Malaysians are not allowed to know how polluted the air they breathe is. The Air Pollution Index is now classified under the Official Secrets Act. The reason given is that publishing it would adversely affect the tourism industry. It seems that if we don't know how bad the haze is, it doesn't really exist.

In 1999, a gag order was issued on the reporting of the Nipah virus outbreak, which claimed over 100 lives. Opposition parties queried whether any of those lives could have been saved, had information been made available. Questions over the effectiveness of measures taken, such as the wholesale slaughter of thousands of pigs, were never answered.

The gags affect both the health and wealth of the nation.

This information gap does not affect all equally.

In the realm of cyberspace, home to the elite, there are no restrictions. Here, Malaysians seek reliable information and at the forefront of the movement are the bloggers, taking the vanguard from the pioneering

When the newspapers won't publish information on how hazy it is in Malaysia, surfers can visit Singaporean sites. The Singaporean government updates its air pollution indices frequently, and they're available online.

Surfers could access the latest WHO figures and recommendations on SARS, checking if these tallied with what was coming out of the mouths of Ministers.

Offline, when articles are published in international magazines, such as The Economist, the print edition is delayed. Online, it's available instantaneously.

The information divide isn't just about better access to jobs. It's also about better access to information that can affect matters as fundamental as health.

Fear and self-censorship are prevalent in Malaysia, displayed not only in the media but in almost every walk of life.

However, there are signs that both the Malaysian public and Malaysian journalists are becoming more active. There are at least nine groups working on freedom of information and freedom of expression issues. Five years ago, there were only two or three. Memoranda have been sent, and debate is opening up. There is a new administration openly stating that it wants people working with it, rather than for it, and it has declared war on corruption. The only way the war will be successful is with greater freedom of information.

There is a need for more discussion on the everyday repercussions of suppressing information. The recognition that information can help both farmers and stock-brokers make rational decisions that affect their health, their money and their future.

In Malaysia, as elsewhere in the region, we need to recognize that freedom of information, freedom of expression and economic affluence are not mutually exclusive. They work together to help provide both a richer and a fairer society.