Bar Council: Publish JB Hospital Fire Independent Inquiry Report

Malaysian Bar president AG Kalidas says the independent committee’s report on the 2016 fire at Sultanah Aminah Hospital is of public interest and that fair comment does not prejudice a fair trial.

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 22 — The Bar Council has urged the Ministry of Health (MOH) to publish an independent committee’s findings on the deadly 2016 fire at Sultanah Aminah Johor Bahru Hospital (HSA).  

Bar Council chairman AG Kalidas said the sub judice rule — which MOH previously cited as a reason for not publishing the independent inquiry’s report pending three court cases over the fire — does not mean that all public debate regarding a matter must cease once a lawsuit has commenced.

Sub judice only comes into play when there is a “real and substantial” risk of serious prejudice to a fair trial. 

“Fair comment does not prejudice a fair trial,” Kalidas told CodeBlue.

“It is also a matter of greater public interest that freedom of discussion is upheld particularly on matters of general public concern. 

“In this instance, the incident, where lives were lost, took place at a government facility, a hospital, no less. The report of the committee is therefore clearly of public interest and its publication ought to supersede concerns of prejudice to a fair trial, if any.”

Kalidas also pointed out that the report by the independent committee, chaired by former Court of Appeal judge Mohd Hishamudin Yunus, was arguably substantive to the negligence lawsuits filed by the parents of three patients killed in the fire, “and it would be in the interest of justice for the report to be put before the Court.”

Last October 7, Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin expressed his commitment to publishing the report, but said he would seek advice from the ministry’s legal counsel first, ahead of the fifth anniversary of the October 25, 2016 fire at the MOH hospital next Monday that left six patients dead.

HSA director Dr Mohtar Pungut told plaintiffs in the three lawsuits that the independent committee’s report, among the documents they sought, was an official secret of top-level classification. The government is attempting to get the suits thrown out on the basis that they were filed, in September 2020, after the expiry of the three-year statute of limitations.

Kalidas reiterated the Malaysian Bar’s stand on amending the Official Secrets Act 1972.

He noted that the definition of “official secret” was very wide and that the law empowered the home minister to add matters, without providing reasons, to the already wide definition of what is an “official secret”.

“A review of the Act is timely to make it more in conformity with freedom of speech and expression. In tandem with this, a freedom of information legislation should be enacted in order to promote competency, accountability and transparency in government administration.

“Such an Act should provide citizens with the right to information held by government and any exemptions thereto should be listed specifically in the Act, rather than any unduly wide or broad definition,” said Kalidas.

While the Malaysian Bar president acknowledged situations where the government has legitimate reason to classify certain documents or reports, this must be balanced against public interest, transparency, and accountability.

“The classification of a document as ‘secret’ should be supported by strong and cogent reasons.”

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