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Wanted: Sincere, smarter pathways to tackle fake news

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Consider this: do you really think the anti-fake news law will be able to sanitise 1MDB and restore the credibility of the administration, writes JD Lovrenciear.

The Washington Post has claimed in an opinion piece that Malaysia’s plan to introduce anti-fake news law is “really just censorship”.

Before we plunge into a shouting match, either condemning or agreeing with the US daily, will our leaders please consider some salient truths and consider walking down a smarter avenue to address the ‘fake news’ controversy.

First and foremost, the enactment of severely punitive laws will not deter the flow of fake news.

Have our leaders considered Malaysia’s experience these past decades?

We have the death sentence for illicit drugs. But has the drug menace declined? No. We read so often of drug mules, drug factories and even the smuggling of millions of ringgit of drugs across borders.

We have laws to fight corruption. But we see corrupt practices escalating in severity. Even institutions of government are not free from this growing scourge.

The policing of news will curtail the fundamental freedom of information. It will throw the spotlight back on governments, which will be accused (rightly or wrongly) of news manipulation, censorship and cover-up of their misdeeds.

Given the unstoppable information flow in the world wide web and the explosion of social media, what would be a smarter option for the Malaysian government?

To argue that even Germany, Singapore and China are clamping down on news would be a cop-out. You can peddle such a defence only if you truly believe Malaysians are gullible bumpkins.

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The bitter truth is, censorship or curtailment of news is outdated. Such remedies cannot function favourably in this new era when the world wide web touches on all aspects of human endeavour – politics, the economy, and social and environmental concerns.

As the Washington Post says, “an open society must guarantee the right to express a wide range of views, including criticism of its leaders, with very few limitations, accompanied by due process and rule of law.”

In fact, “whether news is true or false” is an argument that will not serve humanity well, especially against a backdrop of censorship and control.

It is fallacy to think that the growing armies of people worldwide who are flooding, entering and exiting the news stream can be herded or controlled using anti-fake news laws.

If a government still thinks that is the only way, many would suspect it of having an agenda to remain in power by any means.

Attempting to control information flow is often an easy way to escape accountability for irresponsible governance.

Malaysia will make history in a positive way if only its leaders will agree that we need political and social will to guide, infuse and build values instead of threatening arrests for spreading ‘fake news’.

In this modern era, sincere governments will commit chunks of their national budgets to ensure that citizens are taught, encouraged and enabled to exercise discernment.

A country like Malaysia that peddles, parades and preaches religion all the time should find it more sensible to inculcate strong values among its citizens rather than continue subscribing to Iron Age deterrent laws.

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The remedy for persistent fake news peddling and its spread rests on the intelligent, focused and determined ability of leaders and heads of government institutions to tackle fake news with accountable, reliable and prompt rebuttals.

A transparent and accountable government would commit more resources to ensure that we are well prepared to counter unfounded or fake news in a timely, accountable, transparent and acceptable manner.

As an illustration, if only the Najib’s administration had not quarantined the 1MDB reports but opened the books up early into the allegations, today it would not be struggling and drowning in a sea of allegations while its reputation takes a hit.

The administration’s inability to be transparent and accountable, its unwillingness or inability to provide credible rebuttals fuels all kinds of allegations, accusations, suspicions and doubts over the prime minister in the news stream.

Consider this: do you really think the anti-fake news law will be able to sanitise 1MDB and restore the credibility of this administration?

It is time to allow sense and sensibility to thrive.

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