The Centre for Independent Journalism is a non-profit organisation promoting media independence and freedom of expression in Malaysia.
KUALA LUMPUR – Transparency must be prioritised in the government’s efforts to flatten the Covid-19 curve, said the Centre for Independent Journalism, urging for all coronavirus data held by public bodies to be made known to Malaysians, including places visited by patients.
Executive director Wathshlah G. Naidu, in a statement, called on the Health Ministry to fulfil its obligation to publish key information of significant public interest, especially in times of crisis.
“As a right-to-information (RTI) advocacy group, we believe that all information and data on Covid-19 that is being held by public bodies must be made public and shared across the board for safety and transparency.
“The principle of transparency and public access during this crisis must trump the old way of decision-making; the state and its actors cannot unilaterally withhold from the public essential information that implicates our lives and decisions.”
Her comments follow Health Director-General Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah’s statement that the ministry will not name public places where coronavirus cases have been detected, so as to avoid the said places from being stigmatised and sparking fear among citizens.
Wathshlah said this is not the time to adopt policies that restrict human rights or conceal poor decision-making.
Nonetheless, she said, public interest must be balanced out with privacy and data protection.
“For example, patient confidentiality should be maintained. And so, it is the obligation of public bodies to respect personal autonomy and privacy by not disclosing the personal details of individual patients, to avoid stigmatisation, discrimination or other forms of reprisal.”
However, she said, this does not necessarily apply to public or high-density places, such as schools, condominiums and malls.
“Disclosing relevant information of public interest during these difficult times allows the public to understand and evaluate whether the government’s responses are appropriate and adequate in protecting and safeguarding people within the premises or vicinity of a Covid-19 hotspot.”
Making public the areas recently visited by coronavirus patients allows people to make informed decisions on whether to continue frequenting these locations or adopt added precautionary measures, she said.
“Furthermore, disclosing the places frequented by a Covid-19 patient will augment contact-tracing efforts by spurring members of the public to come forward for testing, reducing the risk of further transmission.”
The authorities’ failure to inform people of such places may lead to disinformation and misinformation, said Wathshlah, as there would be no reliable source to counter false claims.
“This could lead to unnecessary anxiety and panic, as well as breed hatred and discrimination.”
She said it is incumbent on the government to put a stop to the “blame game” over matters related to the pandemic, and instead focus on educating the public on the importance of avoiding stigmatisation, discrimination and blame.
Wathshlah urged the Perikatan Nasional administration to enact an RTI law, saying the current situation illustrates the need for such legislation, and for the Official Secrets Act 1972 to be repealed, in line with upholding the public’s right to know. – The Vibes, October 24, 2020
Source: The Vibes