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Thursday, November 6, 1997 Published at 12:02 GMT


Malaysian experts silenced over smog

Thick smog in the Malaysian capital is posing serious health risks to the young and vulnerable

The Malaysian authorities have banned the country's academics from making public comments about the smoke haze which has smothered the country for the past four months - for fear of damaging the tourist industry.

The Education Minister, Najib Tun Razak, is reported by local newspapers to have ordered the ban as the number of tourists visiting the region dropped sharply as a result of the haze. "We want to avoid an alarmist attitude," he said, "to prevent tourists from staying away."

[ image: The haze over Kuala Lumpur is keeping tourists away]
The haze over Kuala Lumpur is keeping tourists away
The haze is caused by hundreds of forest fires in Indonesia which are still burning because of the late arrival of the monsoon rains.

Newspapers in the region have been full of articles quoting academics and doctors discussing the likely damage to human and environmental health. Now, Mr Razak has decided to put a stop to the speculation.

Tourism is now the second largest source of foreign exchange for Malaysia but hotel and tour operators report that the number of visitors is down sharply since the haze appeared in July.

[ image: Forest fires still burn in Indonesia]
Forest fires still burn in Indonesia
BBC correspondent Jonathan Head points out: "At a time when Malaysia's economy has been badly affected by the regional currency crisis, it can ill afford a drop in tourist revenue. But with the Indonesian fires now being widely discussed in the international media, it isn't clear that a ban on analysis in Malaysia can help bring the tourists back. "

The Indonesian authorities have also imposed informal restrictions on the way its newspapers report the fires.

Editors have been told they can no longer cite large plantation companies as the main culprits behind the fires but that they should blame the abnormally dry weather caused by El Nino instead.

Several areas of Indonesia are still smothered in thick smoke and doctors say they are very concerned about the impact on the health of millions of people who have had to breathe in the polluted air for the past four months.

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