Citizen Nades - Nine months and counting

12 Jul 2015 / 22:38 H.

    THE latest in the 1MDB saga and the use of its funds – a letter from the prime minister's lawyers seeking "clarification" – is now the hot topic of discussion and commentary. Professor Gurdial Singh had succinctly provided some insight into the letter sent to The Wall Street Journal on Thursday and there is no necessity to comment or repeat some valid points he had made.
    Media organisations and practitioners are accustomed to receiving what is called in the fraternity "love letters" from lawyers on what had been published.
    Letters of demand regularly land on the desks of publishers, editors and journalists from aggrieved parties who rightly or wrongly claim that certain articles defamed them.
    Journalists are often reminded that there are several defences to such accusations but told: "There is no better defence than the truth." Wherever possible, documents are obtained, verified and sometimes, a response from the other side becomes mandatory.
    Mindful of these requirements, in June last year, this newspaper started an investigation into the procurement of critical care equipment for government hospitals by the Health Ministry. Judging by its procurement records and policies, it has hundreds of suppliers and some supply life-saving paraphernalia.
    I had sought the views of industry players before publication. I also had a meeting with the International Trade and Industry Ministry secretary-general Tan Sri Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria and the deputy director-general of health, Datuk Dr Jayeindran Sinnadurai.
    At that meeting, I provided documents and photographs which were gathered in the course of assembling information for the proposed article.
    The article published on Oct 29 asked two pertinent questions:
    » Would Malaysians allow government hospitals to use critical life-saving equipment that have not met essential requirements?
    » Then, why does the Health Ministry continue to purchase equipment from a company that has not even met the basic provisions of the Medical Devices Act (MDA)?
    Thereafter, there was a flurry of phone calls from doctors and industry players who commended me for putting up the facts for public consumption on the ministry's procurement system.
    In an immediate response, Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam directed his secretary-general, Datuk Farida Mohd Ali, to immediately step up investigations into the allegation of the ministry buying equipment from a company that has not met the basic provisions of the MDA.
    "We will not protect any person, or give any person undue advantage if they do not adhere to the guidelines and regulations," he thundered.
    Two weeks later, the director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah sent a response to the article explaining the role of the Medical Devices Authority which has to certify almost all medical equipment.
    All was forgotten but in December, a letter from the law firm – Messrs Hafarizam Wan & Aisha Mubarak – landed on our desk. Previously, the same firm had sent me a subpoena to testify as the defendant's witness in a defamation suit filed by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. But this one was unrelated and referred to the purchase of the equipment by the ministry.
    They were acting for a company which was never identified or named in the article. Besides other assertions, they claimed that the article would hold the company "in contempt and odium by the public" and that it would "damage its reputation of a magnitude that would last for years".
    The letter further demanded that we refrain from publishing further allegations of a similar nature and a payment of RM60 million plus an apology.
    I took umbrage not any party but at the ministry which appeared to have breached the laws it was supposed to implement, especially medical equipment which draws a thin line between life and death.
    By the way, our lawyers replied almost immediately and had asked for specific particulars and words which were alleged to have defamed their client.
    My record speaks for itself. I have repeatedly asked for accountability and transparency in purchases by the government. I have also pointed out weaknesses in the system and in some cases, how crooked officials had worked around the system to dupe the people. As a journalist, this is the role I have chosen to play and have highlighted scores of malpractices in this area.
    These are some of the many perils journalists face in wanting to present a fair and accurate account of their investigations. It was straightforward with some startling questions.
    Today after nine months, the ministry has yet to answer these questions. The minister's promise has not been kept and the secretary-general's investigation has not been forthcoming.
    Wouldn't it be fair if the same questions and another are repeated in the interest of the people? Why should the ministry promulgate a law on medical devices when its own officers refuse to implement it?
    Understandably, the minister is busy with his own squabbles within his party, but as one whose salary is paid by public funds, shouldn't he spend more time on his ministry so that we are assured that medical equipment in our hospitals are of the highest and expected standards?
    R. Nadeswaran like other journalists is prone to receiving letters of demand, but reiterates the truth is the best defence. Comments:

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