CNET : News : Story Monday, August 16, 1999 

Malaysians vent online after smog readings blackout
By L. Chan
Monday, August 16 1999

KUALA LUMPUR--Malaysians are turning to the Internet to seek information and vent their outrage after the government orchestrated a media blackout on a recurrent pall of haze over the country.

A flurry of postings popped up on newsgroups, discussion lists and Web sites after the Cabinet decided not to disclose the widely followed daily air pollution index (API) readings as it did previously.

"The Environment Minister is playing down the seriousness of the haze, while people around him are sneezing and wheezing. I think the authorities are being irresponsible to everyone of us, locals and visitors alike," posted one user on soc.culture.malaysia.

"It's as if they're thinking, 'no haze index, no outrage about haze'," said another.

In 1997, many parts of the country were shrouded in suffocating smog that cut visibility down drastically and was attributed to forest fires in neighboring Indonesia. Schools and airports had to be closed, and thousands sought treatment for respiratory disorders.

The haze was not as bad in 1998, probably due to heavy rains.

The API is based on the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) developed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The index measures five pollutants--particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone and is converted to a figure from 0 to 500.

This year, the government is only saying that the index is below 100, which is defined as moderate or better.

Science, Technology and Environment Minister Law Hieng Ding further incensed the public last week when he said the Cabinet decision to hold back the readings was so as "not to drive away the tourists."

"There is nothing alarming about the haze. It is a usual phenomenon which occurs at a certain time of the year. So we shouldn't pay too much emphasis on it," he reportedly said.

The government's move drew fire from opposition parties and environmental groups.

"The message the Cabinet is sending out to the world in imposing such a ban is that the government cannot be trusted in providing truthful and reliable information not only to its citizens but also to the world community," said Opposition leader Lim Kit Siang, in a media statement

Lim believes that the government had intentionally gagged Alam Sekitar Malaysia, the company awarded the concession to install air monitoring stations and monitor pollutant index nationwide, from making public the API readings.

He said international news reports about the blackout of the API have given Malaysian tourism even worse publicity than the readings themselves.

The Internet postings echoed his comments. "It is better to announce the readings. Hiding such information will only cause more tourists to avoid our country. The more you hide, the more suspicious they will be, and (it is) perfect bait for a new bout of rumours," wrote user TS Ding.

Dr Muruga Vadivale, who runs an independent haze resource Web site,was disappointed by the media blackout and said it could lead to people drawing "wrong conclusions".

Some Internet users, for example, have taken to posting perceived API levels and estimated visibility ratings at their areas, based on their experience with the 1997 haze.

Dr Vadivale pointed out that visibility readings may not be a reliable indicator of pollution in the air.

"The visibility index may be deceiving. A perception of a very high level of pollution in the air may be concluded because of the relatively high humidity in the atmosphere when in actual fact the API could be low," he said.

In addition, readings from other countries could be wrongfully ascribed to Malaysia, further adding to the confusion, he noted.

Similarly-affected Singapore was still posting its Pollution Standards Index at the Singapore Ministry of Environment web site daily.

Dr Vadivale said releasing the API readings would benefit a lot of people, including parents, the elderly, those with respiratory problems, and doctors.

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