A “fake news” law may compel ordinary people to exercise self-censorhip when expressing themselves, says Mustafa K Anuar.
The professed assurance by a bevy of ministers in the Najib administration recently that a proposed law to arrest “fake news” is meant to protect “political stability and public order” as well as the freedom of expression for all Malaysians has already evoked scepticism, if not cynicism, among a concerned public and government critics.
While one may genuinely be concerned about the supposed proliferation of “fake news”, such an assurance, however, rings hollow coming from members of a government (and its ancillary agencies) known to have committed censorship of a cavalier nature, produced half-truths and manufactured information to serve their vested interests.
This phenomenon especially became writ large in general elections of yore, and the next one will be no different. If anything, half-truths and lies are likely to reign supreme in this supposedly “mother of elections” that involves all players from both sides of the political divide.
Not only that, the idea of having a “fake news” law is hatched in a political environment where people were already being arrested, detained, having charges pressed against them and harassed in recent years for merely exercising their democratic right to express opinions, particularly those discordant with the government’s narrative.
Furthermore, the indecent haste with which the government plans to institute a law purportedly to curb “fake news” in the next parliamentary session, and prior to the next general election to boot, is also a cause for public curiosity and concern.
As it is, the government has reportedly cobbled a committee made up of representatives from the police, the Attorney General’s Chambers, the National Security Council, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, the Communications and Multimedia Ministry and the Legal Affairs Division to address this issue.
To be clear, “fake news” aka. disinformation has been here for a very long time.
Here, one can think of an incident in the 1990 general election when Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, leader of the then opposition pact called Gagasan Rakyat, wore Kadazan headgear (sigah) that was presented to him by Parti Bersatu Sabah chief Joseph Pairin Kitingan.
As regard this case, the mainstream media, including the irrepressible Utusan Malaysia, went to town to falsely depict Razaleigh as a politician who had worn a headgear that had a Christian cross on it, thereby putting doubt to his commitment to the Malay community and his Islamic credentials.
In this rush to legislate, will all the stakeholders in the country be given the opportunity and enough time to vet the proposed bill to curb “fake news”?
Or, will the parliamentarians be given only enough space to go through the bill past their bedtime?
Besides, as rightly pointed out by the Bar Council recently, we already have laws to address this problem of “fake news”, such as the Sedition Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) and the Communications and Multimedia Act.
A case in point is that the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission is already investigating 76 cases of fake news and information.
Also, at the heart of the matter is the vital question of who defines what “fake news” or information is. It is important to note that those who control the levers of power normally have the power to define things – via the media and other means of mass communication – that are in line with their vested interests.
Recent developments give an inkling as to how this move to purportedly curb “false news” may pan out.
For instance, the government had already set up a portal called sebenarnya.my (the truth) to purportedly help the public to detect “false news” and provide “an antidote to a poison”.
In other words, this is an outfit that is entrusted to have a monopoly over truth concerning Malaysians and various aspects of society.
Herein lies the rub. This portal gets information that is only verified by government ministries and related agencies, that is, the very government that has incurred some degree of credibility deficit particularly in the wake of the humongous 1MDB scandal and the Felda fiasco.
This perhaps explains why you get no response from the portal when you do a search for “1MDB” or “Felda scandal”. Could it be that the portal regards matters such as the 1MDB and Felda controversies as non-issues?
In contrast, sebenarnya.my was quick to publicise, for instance, the denial from Malay daily Sinar Harian that it carried a (false) news report that Prime Minister Najib Razak would allegedly return a sum of RM2.6bn to the rakyat.
Indeed, there are many dimensions to a truth.
And the portal is planning to go on a roadshow nationwide to announce its “truthful” services, targeting the Malay heartland (to places such as Permatang Pauh and Sungai Besar) where the electoral fight is expected to spike in the 14th general election.
A negative implication of a “fake news” law is that it may have an impact similar to the Printing Presses and Publications Act in that ordinary people are compelled or induced to exercise undue restraint and self-censorship to the point of not being able to express themselves and exchange views as frankly as possible. The media will also be affected by this law.
A culture of fear may set in.
“Fake news” can be combated to a large extent if the media exercise freedom with responsibility and, at the same time, the people can exercise their right to express themselves without fear or favour.
Equally important, the government of the day, irrespective of who governs, must be transparent and accountable.
Assigning a monopoly of truth to someone or some institution is not the right antidote and is the antithesis to freedom of expression.