Malaysian journalist charged over China virus posts

A sign on a shop window in Karak, outside Kuala Lumpur (AFP Photo/Mohd RASFAN)

A Malaysian journalist was charged Wednesday with causing public alarm with Facebook posts about the deadly coronavirus outbreak in China, as authorities warned against online "rumour-mongering".

The virus has so far killed almost 500 people and infected 24,000 others in China, and spread to more than 20 countries including Malaysia, which has 12 cases.

It has also unleashed a flood of misinformation online, from misleading death tolls to vaccine conspiracies, and several Asian countries have arrested people for spreading false information.

Wan Noor Hayati Wan Alias, a Malaysian newspaper journalist, denied three charges in a Kuala Lumpur court of breaking laws that ban statements which cause public fear and alarm, according to court documents.

The documents did not say what she posted on Facebook, but local media reported the posts were related to the virus.

One raised the alarm about the arrival of 1,000 Chinese tourists in the northern state of Penang on a cruise ship despite officials having given assurances they had all undergone medical examinations, reports said.

The 40-year-old faces up to two years in prison for each count if found guilty.

Attorney-General Tommy Thomas lashed out at online "rumour-mongering" related to the virus and warned more people would be charged in coming days.

"Lies about the origins, scale and magnitude of the disease must not be permitted because they endanger public safety," he said in a statement.

He said such lies could be "inflammatory" in a multi-ethnic country like Malaysia.

The Southeast Asian nation has a mostly Muslim population, but is also home to a substantial Chinese minority and issues related to race are sensitive.