While many are aware of the dangers of fake news, we should recognise that an anti-fake news law could threaten freedom of expression and of the media, writes Mustafa K Anuar.
It is commendable of the government to resist reintroducing the anti-fake news law despite a recent upsurge of disinformation amid the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) epidemic.
As rightly pointed out by Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo recently, there are already laws, such as the Penal Code and defamation laws, that can deal with this irresponsible behaviour, especially among those who use social media.
Equally noteworthy is the efficiency and transparency of particularly the Ministry of Health that goes a long way towards ensuring that updated information is accessible to the public, thereby reducing to some extent the reliance on and blind trust in unverified information regarding the spread of the coronavirus.
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Indeed, there are individuals suspected of spreading fake information particularly about the 2019-nCoV cases in Malaysia who are already facing the full force of the existing law.
This should serve as a crucial warning to others who are bent on creating or disseminating false information to the detriment of us all because it can distort the reality on the ground, heighten panic and unnecessarily stretch the limited resources available.
Freedom of expression must be exercised with personal responsibility as is expected in a democracy. It is never meant to be an all-hell-breaks-loose proposition, especially when it comes to users of social media, where consumers also double up as producers of messages.
While we are aware of the dangers of fake news, we should recognise that an anti-fake news law could threaten freedom of expression and of the media. Such a law, especially one that privileges the authorities to define what is false or true, could give rise to a situation where bona fide journalists and the public may find themselves exercising undue self-censorship.
Self-censorship could take on a life of its own, without much intervention from the authorities, to the point that a journalist or a citizen would self-censor beyond the expectations and wishes of the state.
In the case of journalists, a few of them may unwittingly commit factual errors while performing their task, which should not be criminalised and punished overly hard.
There are certain ways to correct such journalistic mistakes or unethical practices. For instance, the journalist and the news outlet concerned can publish a public apology and correction, and they can also provide a platform or space for the maligned party to exercise his or her right to reply.
Furthermore, making corrections to journalistic errors is in keeping with the spirit of self-regulatory media that function in an environment where there exists an independent media council to oversee the working of the media.
The Malaysian media fraternity is working towards forming such a council, which is aimed at raising professionalism in the media industry and enhancing democracy.
Incidentally, to ensure a vibrant and independent media council, undemocratic laws that govern the media industry, such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act, must be repealed. There should not be an outer layer of control from the authorities once the media council is put in place.
A Malaysian media landscape that is independent and highly professional would distinguish itself in South East Asia, where many countries currently witnessing increased assaults on media freedom within their borders.