KL bid to raise penalty for leaking secrets draws flak

Attorney-General Apandi Ali.
Attorney-General Apandi Ali. PHOTO: THE STAR/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK

People who leak official secrets could face life imprisonment and 10 strokes of the cane as Malaysia considers meting out heavier punishments, drawing flak from Malaysian whistleblower and media groups.

Attorney-General Apandi Ali told Sin Chew Daily in an interview published yesterday that such leaks were a threat to national security, adding that in countries such as China, the death penalty is imposed if state security was endangered.

Tan Sri Apandi said the Attorney- General's Chambers was looking into amending the Official Secrets Act (OSA), which currently provides for a jail term of one to seven years for those who leak state secrets as well as for journalists complicit in publishing the secrets and who refuse to reveal their sources.

The opposition-linked National Oversight and Whistleblowers (NOW) said in response that if the government wanted to stop leaks, it should increase punishment for graft and abuses of power instead.

"Most exposes are in the public interest and are able to stop such (corrupt) acts from happening again," NOW director Akmal Nasir said in a statement yesterday.

The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) criticised the move to target journalists, saying it indicated that the government was "intolerant of criticism and fearful of accountability... using all laws at its disposal to restrict and clamp down on our right to freedom of expression".

In the interview, Mr Apandi said journalists who refuse to disclose their sources become partners in the act of undermining national security. 

"If I have 90 per cent evidence, I will prosecute the journalist, editors, assistant editors and editor-in-chief. Rights to information is not a right prescribed under the Constitution," he warned.

In rebutting the A-G, the CIJ insisted that Article 10 of the Federal Constitution upholds the right to freedom of speech and expression and that the Kuala Lumpur High Court had decided in a landmark 2013 case that reporters have no obligation to disclose their sources.

However, Mr Apandi told Sin Chew Daily times have changed, and the law must be revised.

Opposition lawmaker Rafizi Ramli said he would start a campaign to get Malaysians to protest against the A-G's proposal, which the Parti Keadilan Rakyat secretary-general said "reflected the tendency of the Najib administration to take oppressive measures to silence critics".

Mr Apandi was appointed A-G by Prime Minister Najib Razak last July amid media reports that the PM had received US$700 million (S$985 million) in his personal accounts. Last month, he cleared Datuk Seri Najib of criminal wrongdoing regarding a Saudi "donation" of US$681 million. 

It sparked public debate over whether there was a conflict of interest in his handling of the case, leading to an abuse of his discretionary powers as public prosecutor. Two former ruling party officials have filed for a judicial review of the decision.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 08, 2016, with the headline 'KL bid to raise penalty for leaking secrets draws flak'. Print Edition | Subscribe