Why locking state information is dangerous to democracy

FEBRUARY 9 ― Attorney-General (AG) Tan Sri Mohd Apandi Ali’s desire, made public recently, to explore the possibility of further tightening the Official Secrets Act (OSA) ― to the point of jailing for life and caning whistleblowers and journalists who disseminate leaked information ― has certainly been taken seriously by concerned Malaysians as exemplified by the outrage rightly expressed by certain civil society groups.

Just to give a sense of how serious the AG is on this matter, he was quoted by Sin Chew Daily as saying: “I am not joking. If I have 90 per cent of evidence, I will charge the journalist, editor, assistant editor and editor-in-chief. I am serious, no kidding. We have had too many leaks.”

It is certainly no joke to inflict punitive measures against journalists who seek the truth from whistleblowers in a society that has spawned a culture of secrecy particularly within the government administration over the years. Incidentally, information leaks are indicative of a government that is less democratic and unduly secretive.

To be sure, concerned Malaysians appreciate the fact that certain sensitive state secrets must be put under lock and key because obviously to do otherwise may well put the country’s security and interests in jeopardy and vulnerable to foreign powers’ manipulation.

However, any law that is supposed to protect such vital state information should only be confined to this area of security concern, for anything that goes beyond that is an implied attempt to hide information of public importance and interest.

Seen from this perspective, Malaysia’s current OSA is indeed an antithesis of the very notion of freedom of information. This secrecy law is another form of censorship whereby the citizenry is denied certain information that is of public and national importance. It certainly transgresses the principles of good governance, transparency and accountability. To further tighten the OSA is to go down the slippery slope of authoritarianism, if we haven’t already reached there.

Freedom of information is crucial to the functioning of a democracy worthy of its name because it is only when citizens are armed with relevant information that their representatives, i.e. the country’s leadership, can be made to account for their policies and actions which usually incur taxpayers’ money and affect the future of their socio-economic and political standing. Information is also needed by the people in their desire to participate in the country’s democratic processes.

This is why certain civil society groups have been campaigning hard for the drafting and implementation of Freedom of Information law in the country, which so far only found traction in the two opposition states of Selangor and Penang. If needs emphasising, freedom of information is crucial in our collective attempt to arrest the scourge of corruption and abuse of power that has ravaged our society over the years.

It is therefore very disturbing for the AG to suggest harsher penalties for those found indulging in leaked information about the government, especially at a critical juncture in our country’s history. He should be more concerned about financial leakages in the government system rather than information leaks.

So far, many politicians, social activists, journalists, social media users and other concerned citizens have been punished or harassed via such laws as the Sedition Act, the OSA, the Communications and Multimedia Act etc for merely seeking answers to troubling questions and expressing their criticisms of the government and dissenting views, which is their democratic right.

The relentless pursuit of truth and justice by journalists, social activists and concerned citizens, among others, should not be criminalised. To tighten further the OSA gives the impression that perpetrators of corruption are given state protection while whistleblowers are exposed to severe punishment. This is clearly a warped notion of justice.

Hiding certain important information behind undemocratic laws is not new in this country and elsewhere, especially at a time when the political legitimacy and hegemony of the powers that be is under assault by the citizenry.

To give ourselves a sense of perspective, the Mahathir administration of 22 years did tighten the archaic OSA to its present form in the turbulent '80s when political crises and financial scandals such as the BMF controversy and the Maminco fiasco came to the fore. In a country that is less democratic, the logical conclusion would be that the screw gets increasingly tightened with the passage of time and adversities ― and hence the recent call by the AG is not a surprise.

It would therefore be delusional on our part to think, as certain politicians would like us to believe, that the tightening of restrictive laws such as the OSA is anything but political. It is indeed a political act to achieve certain political ends.

Severe penalty as suggested by the AG against journalists who seek information from whistleblowers must be roundly condemned by all concerned Malaysians who do not cherish examples of governance from such countries as China.

In this regard, it is ludicrous of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) to call on its members, i.e. working journalists, to seek “verification” of leaked information from the AG and Cabinet ministers. This may not be a perfect parallel, but one would think that reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post would not have been able to uncover the Watergate scandal in the 1970s had they waited patiently for verification from leadership of the sullied Nixon Administration.

Both the seekers and givers of information take a calculated risk for the higher good of the country, and organisations such as the NUJ should in principle come to the defence of these principled people.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

Related Articles