Bangkok, February 6, 2020 — Malaysian authorities should immediately drop all charges against journalist Wan Noor Hayati Wan Alias and allow reporters to freely cover and comment on the coronavirus outbreak, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Yesterday, the Kuala Lumpur Magistrate’s Court filed three charges against Hayati, a reporter with the local Berita Harian Malay newspaper and New Straits Times English daily, under Section 505(b) of the country’s penal code, a criminal provision banning statements intended to cause “fear or alarm to the public” or “commit an offense against the State or public tranquility,” according to a report in the local daily Malay Mail.
The charges relate to three posts Hayati made on her public Facebook account, where she posts political commentary and news stories under the pen name “Ibu Yati” and has about 1,700 followers, according to local news website Malaysiakini and CPJ’s review of her page.
According to the Malay Mail, the posts were made at 10 p.m. on January 26, and included commentary on reports that 1,000 Chinese travelers were coming to Malaysia on a cruise ship. A screenshot of that post was published by local news portal Free Malaysia Today, but the post was taken down or set to private when CPJ reviewed Hayati’s page today. Yeoh Soon Hin, a Penang official, later said that about 1,200 Chinese tourists did arrive on a cruise ship, and said that they all underwent health exams before being allowed into Penang, according to reports.
Hayati, who represented herself at yesterday’s hearing, pleaded not guilty to all three charges and was released on 12,000 ringgit ($2,900) bail, with another hearing set for March 11, according to a report by the New Straits Times.
If found guilty on all three counts, she faces a maximum penalty of six years in prison, according to the country’s penal code.
“The wrongheaded and misplaced charges against Malaysian journalist Wan Noor Hayati Wan Alias should be dropped immediately,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “Reporters everywhere must be allowed to freely report and comment on the coronavirus, and to keep the public well-informed on the evolving health emergency.”
Malaysian authorities have detained at least five social media users in recent days for sharing alleged false information about the coronavirus outbreak, according to news reports.
If convicted under provisions in Malaysia’s Communications and Multimedia Act that bar disseminating false information that “could disrupt national stability and public order,” they each face up to one year in prison, according to those reports.
CPJ emailed the Malaysian Attorney-General’s Chambers for comment on Hayati’s case, but did not immediately receive a response.
CPJ’s messages to Hayati’s Facebook page did not immediately receive a response.