Gag on Asia haze scaremongers

November 28, 1997

Academics in Malaysia are only barred from publicising their findings on the health effects of the haze and not on other sensitive issues, said education minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

His assertion follows a stormy week, in which the government was once again accused of tightening its gag on academic freedom.

Dr Najib was correcting news reports quoting him as saying academics are barred from making negative statements about any sensitive issue and speaking to the local and foreign press.

He was anxious to convey that the government's decision to bar public university and college academics from publicising their findings was "confined to the haze and not a blanket ban for all issues".

He said the ban aimed to prevent statements not supported by concrete scientific evidence and which could easily damage the image of the country. "This is not against the freedom of academics, it has nothing to do with it. This is trying to look at it from the national interest," Dr Najib told a press conference last week.

Dr Najib referred to the "irresponsible statement" from one academic claiming that breathing the air in Malaysia during the haze was equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes a day.

The Malaysian Academic Movement in Penang has defended the right of academics to publicise their environmental research findings as their work is funded by the taxpayer and complies with research guidelines and regulations. Its secretary-general Haris Md Jadi said the public should be kept informed so that they could take the necessary health precautions.

The Penang Legal Advisory Centre said the "gag" countered the public's right to know and free speech. Press suspicions were aroused when their calls to lecturers and researchers were greeted with silence or comments to the effect they were not allowed to speak to the press at all.

The existence of a ban emerged when the press got wind of a letter to vice chancellors and rectors from the director-general of education Datuk Dr Johari Mat.

The director-general's letter referred to "negative analyses and opinions regarding Malaysia's environment, especially in connection with the recent occurrence of the haze".

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