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A man collects supplies over barbed wire in the coronavirus lockdown area of Selayang Baru, outside of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on April 26, 2020. A journalist faces prison time over her social media posts on the health crisis. (AP/Vincent Thian)

Malaysian journalist faces six years in prison over COVID-19 Facebook posts

By Shawn W. Crispin/CPJ Senior Southeast Asia Representative on May 5, 2020 10:15 AM ET

When Malaysian journalist Wan Noor Hayati Wan Alias criticized a government decision to allow a cruise ship with Chinese tourists to dock and disembark at the coastal city of Penang in late January, a time when China was at the epicenter of the COVID-19 global pandemic, she was criminally charged with causing a public panic.

Hayati now faces a possible six years in prison for three posts she made to her personal Facebook account which she says meant to critically question whether the decision was influenced by the government’s reliance on Chinese investment and if authorities were prioritizing tourism revenues over public health concerns.

Since the charges were filed, Hayati, an award-winning investigative journalist and single mother, has lost her job due to retrenchment at the local newspaper where she worked and says she is struggling to survive as a freelance journalist in a restrictive lockdown reporting environment.

In an email interview, Hayati explained why the criminal charges threaten Malaysian press freedom and have damaged her reputation. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Why in your opinion did authorities file criminal charges against you for your COVID-19 related posts?

In my opinion, authorities acted on behalf of their superiors in fulfilling their wishes to have journalists and others framed for “fake news” for going against them. They dismissed early concerns and warnings about the coronavirus as “fake news.”

Later my Facebook posts warning about the virus threat came to fruition and now our country, Malaysia, has been in a COVID-19 lockdown ever since March 18.

How have the pending charges impacted your ability to report COVID-19 related news?

The longer it takes for the case to be resolved, the more challenging it is for me to write articles on COVID-19 because of the stigma of the previous government labeling me and my articles as "fake news.” My reputation is now no longer a clean slate.

Have you had to practice more self-censorship with the charges still pending in court?

Yes, choosing the right words is a must since anything said or written could have both positive and negative impacts [on my case], depending on the judge's interpretation.

Is there any indication the government will back down considering the subsequent spread of COVID-19, precisely what your January posts warned could happen?

After all that has happened, it seems so. My lawyer is convinced that the case has too many weak points and that the charges could be dropped.

Do you stand by your posts and the COVID-19 warnings they sounded? In one case, you shared another user’s video claiming that 90,000 people could have died in China.

Yes, I do. I stand by my words that COVID-19 is not a political issue but rather a public safety one. As our Prime Minister [Muhyiddin Yassin] has said, he is responsible for every single life of the masses at this moment. That is a heavy commitment.

I reposted the YouTube clip in recognition of a Chinese nurse who cautioned that China would give wrong information [about their COVID-19 outbreak.]

Apparently, the truth was revealed a month after my posting ... China admitted hiding information prior to the pandemic COVID-19 at the early stages when they had discovered the virus. Even the total number of deaths could be more than what had been reported."

Do you think authorities aimed to send a message to all journalists that they could face similar charges for reporting critically on the government’s COVID-19 response?

I believe so and most of my media colleagues have the same view. Most journalists have been avoiding the topic and now only wait for responses and information from the authorities. None dare to think or search outside of the box, nor do they question anything the government says - even on social media. It has not been good for press freedom.

Do you think Malaysian journalists are free to report on COVID-19 related news?

Based on my personal experience, journalists must now obtain authorization from the Ministry of Health before interviewing any of the doctors or medical personnel [dealing with COVID-19]. Crucial details on [infected people] and infected areas are not properly given and that has arguably caused an increase in the number of patients.

While their reason for avoiding contacts is understandable, to prevent the virus from spreading, there are also some out there who have voiced dissatisfaction with the government’s response.

I recently interviewed one of the officers who dealt with one of the COVID-19 victims. The hospital where he worked called me soon after the article was published because apparently I didn't have clearance from the public relations officer in charge to interview him/her.

They said procedures must be followed before anybody can interview any of the case-related individuals, even though the interview was about his/her personal experience and not about the hospital's policies. They also said that it was unfair for me to get an exclusive while other [reporters] are still waiting for the official statements.

How has the government’s lockdown impacted journalists’ ability to report?

The word "hard" would totally understate the situation at hand. All reporters and journalists now require an official letter from their management for each of their interview requests.

Even without that, many sources flat out refuse to meet personally. As a result, most interviews are done through WhatsApp or email, which really limits the interaction and on-scene visuals.

Is the government using “fake news” allegations to curb independent reporting on Malaysia’s COVID-19 situation?

I believe so. They said they are fighting against fake news, but the reality remains that they are trying to cover for the mistakes of the previous [Mahathir Mohamad] government as they took slow action against the impending virus at that time.

How have the criminal charges impacted you personally?

It has been a hard pill to swallow. After losing my place at one of the most prominent news agencies here, I have now taken to writing for an online news portal which pays based on articles, not a regular monthly salary. As there is no freedom to report, the topics I'm able to publish are severely limited. If none of my articles passes through, then I don’t get paid and I can’t put bread on the table.

What will happen to your family if you are convicted and sentenced to prison?

It would be devastating, that is no exaggeration. I am a single mother with my one and only beloved child under my care. I do not have any close relatives that would truly care for his well-being as much as I do.

It's a blessing that I could spend time with him right now under lockdown and it has made me realize that losing him would mean that I've lost my whole world. It saddens me every time the thought crosses my mind.