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Rushed anti-fake news law points to act of cowardice

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The hastily passed Anti-Fake News Law by the Dewan Rakyat, makes a mockery of Parliament and points to an act of cowardice by the ruling administration, says Cynthia Gabriel.

“f anything, it requires further study to qualify for good governance standards and to preserve freedom and the statutory rights of Malaysian citizens, “If there is a need that fake news needs to be combated, the government has not shown it. Where are the government studies to warrant it? The white papers? Citizen and expert consultations panels? Even Singapore, often loathed for its very restrictive environment, has established a select committee to shape its policy according to its needs, and the issues are being followed closely by the public,” she said.

On 2 April, the Parliament passed an anti-fake news law. This was the first time Malaysians had heard of anti-fake news legislation, which is now set to be passed at the Senate and enter into effect before the next general elections, expected any day now.

C4 Center is extremely concerned that citizens were never consulted in the hasty passing of the law, and the government has not done its due diligence in gathering feedback on how the law should balance national security and citizenship rights.

Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak has defended the fake news law in a blog post. While citing the German precedent and Singapore and the Philippines’ consideration of such a law, he fails to appreciate the nuances and applicability of such laws.

At the same time, Singapore and the Philippines are not rushing through their respective equivalents of an anti-fake news law. The Singaporean parliament announced their intention to introduce one in July last year, and is in the middle of select committee hearings which call on key members of society to give their input. The Philippines also had multiple senate committee inquiries into the issue of fake news, which invited bloggers, journalists and government communication officers – and in both cases, criticism was present that the hearings only serve as grounds for political grandstanding.

UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression David Kaye had given the thumbs down on the law stating its vagueness of definitions and disproportionate punishments.

C4 Center is aghast that the citations for international precedent for anti-fake news legislation have been taken at such face value without considering the implications and nuances in the debate for citizen rights and freedom of expression. It reflects poorly on the administration and reeks of cowardice.

C4 Center believes that the current state of compromised institutions and good governance practices are insufficient to protect citizens’ rights with such a law. As many others have pointed out, the bill implies that the government will become the final arbiter of truth in Malaysia.

Without true separation of powers, the concentration of power in controlling what counts as the truth, with or without the evidence to back it up, becomes exceedingly dangerous. C4 Center has long been an advocate of separating the Attorney General’s Chambers into its government counsel and public prosecutor roles.

Furthermore, the bedrock that dispels disinformation is government transparency. If the government operates on an information framework, instead of one premised on secrecy, and produces information proactively according to open data principles, fake news itself will be greatly mitigated.

An anti-fake news law in the current form will further disincentivise whistleblowers, especially those who suffer from threats when exposing the truth about corruption. This is an affront to investigative journalism.

No such wide-ranging bill should ever come to this stage without due consideration and input from all levels of society. Malaysia runs the risk of turning into a sham democracy.

Cynthia Gabriel is executive director of C4 Center.

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