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Blocking of news media over alleged ‘fake’ or inaccurate reports is a betrayal of reform

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Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) refers to the statement by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) on Friday in which they defended their action of arbitrarily suspending news portals, giving the excuse of “irresponsible and inaccurate reporting, misleading information, inaccurate content”.

This is a parroting of similar excuses periodically given by Minister Fahmi Fadzil whenever queried over blocks of media websites by the government. His deputy minister, Teo Nie Ching from the DAP, also defended the blocks by claiming that “fake news can be disseminated six times faster than any clarifications”.

This is particularly disappointing and hypocritical, as the DAP had for decades in opposition called for freedom of speech and an end to media curbs.

This response from the MCMC and its ministers suggests a deliberate disregard of the provisions of the Federal Constitution, which they cannot be ignorant of. The right to freedom of expression in Article 10(1)(a) of the Federal Constitution is a fundamental right that cannot be abrogated on the whims of Fahmi and the MCMC.

Fake or inaccurate news does not fall within any of the restrictions of freedom of speech allowed under Article 10(2)(a) of the Constitution. Hence, the course of action being pursued by the MCMC and Fahmi is unlawful, unconstitutional and a blatant abuse of power.

There also appears to be collective amnesia on the part of the current Pakatan Harapan-led government that the Anti-Fake News Act enacted by the Najib Razak government has been repealed. Where is PH’s former fervour in opposing any clampdown on free speech on the excuse of fake news?

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The MCMC’s claim to censor fake, misleading or inaccurate information appears to be a flimsy excuse to clamp down on unfavourable or critical media outlets. What is fake cannot be subject to regulation as the determination will be entirely up to the enforcement body or Fahmi or Teo. They do not have a monopoly on the truth. Such powers, to determine what is true, will lead to the persecution of political opponents, activists and the public who criticise the government or its leaders. No government must exercise such powers.

Censoring speech and news as ‘fake news’ will stifle discourse on issues of public importance for fear of prosecution, rendering the right to free speech nugatory. Allowing the government to dictate the ‘truth’ would allow it to bury any news that it finds politically unfavourable.

This same reasoning was previously used by MCMC to shut down news and criticism surrounding the 1MDB scandal during Najib’s administration; the criticisms were later proven true.

The attempt by this government to control the media using the excuse of preventing fake or inaccurate news is the hallmark of dictatorial rule. Is only government-approved news to reach the public?

It is appalling that this government is disguising the censoring of media under the guise of protecting ‘the truth’ for the sake of societal “harmony”.

As a government that claims to be committed to reform, it must understand the importance of a free press for the functioning of our democracy. As such, this government must immediately halt blocking news sites or media censorship using the convenient excuse of fake news. The press must remain free and independent lest the country descend into tyranny.

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Zaid Malek is a director of Lawyers for Liberty

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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