OCTOBER 23 — The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) is disappointed with Health Director-General Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah’s recent remarks that the Health Ministry will not reveal the names of public places where Covid-19 cases were detected. According to media reports yesterday, Dr Noor Hisham reportedly said that this was to avoid stigmatising these premises and sparking fear among the public.

As a Right to Information (RTI) advocacy group, we believe that all information and data about 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! This is not the time to adopt policies aimed at restricting human rights or using said policies to cover poor or inept decision-making.

Notwithstanding, public interest must be balanced with privacy and data protection. For example, patient confidentiality should be maintained, and so it is the obligation of the public bodies to respect personal autonomy and privacy by not disclosing personal details of individual patients so as to avoid stigmatisation, discrimination or other forms of reprisals. However, this same requirement does not necessarily apply to public spaces or high-density places such as schools, condominiums or 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 the people within the premises or vicinity of a particular Covid-19 hotspot. It enables the public to make informed decisions on whether to frequent these locations, avoid or keep the necessary distance, or adopt appropriate safeguards and precautionary measures when they have to frequent said location or place. Furthermore, disclosing the locations of newly-detected areas or premises where a Covid-19 patient had frequented would augment contact tracing efforts by advising members of the public who may have potentially been exposed to come forward for testing and reduce the risk of further transmission, in a speedier manner.

Failure of the State in disclosing the names of said places or premises, on the other hand, would lead to an “infodemic”, where misinformation or disinformation on alleged affected places could be spread as there would be no reliable or verifiable source to counter such information. This could, in fact, lead to unnecessary anxiety and panic as well as breed further hatred and discrimination.

Finally, it is also incumbent on the State to end the “blame game” as seen through their prevailing narratives in press statements and news reports, and instead focus on educating the public to prevent stigmatisation, discrimination and blame.

It is high time that we eliminate the deep-rooted culture of secrecy within the State and its agencies. The government must now make transparency a priority in its efforts to flatten the Covid-19 curve. The Health Ministry must actively promote a culture of open, responsive, transparent and accountable government and fulfil its obligation to publish key information of significant public interest, especially in times of crisis.

Above all, this episode clearly shows the need for a standalone and national RTI legislation to be enacted and the Official Secrets Act (OSA) to be repealed to protect our right to know. Thus, we urge the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government to immediately enact an RTI law to guarantee and protect our right to information.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.