Curbing fake news an attempt to further stifle free speech?


Curbing fake news an attempt to further stifle free speech?
By Zan Azlee

In October 1938, a series of news stories were broadcast on air. The radio bulletins announced that aliens had invaded Earth and this cause massive panic among the public in the United States. People started packing and evacuating cities.

Eventually, people realised that the news bulletins were fake. It was indeed part of a radio drama narrated by actor Orson Welles from the book ‘The War of The Worlds’ written by HG Wells in 1898.

So this just proves that fake news has always been in existence. It did not just come about now because of social media. It is, however, much easier to spread because people can now do so with just a click of the mouse or stroke of the keyboard.

Recently, minister in charge of law Azalina Othman made a number of statements saying that she and the government are looking at introducing a new legislation to help curb fake news. The reasoning for this is because it could be a threat to national security.

Undeniably, fake news is a problem. It created panic in 1938 and it can create chaos now too. However, the 1938 broadcast of ‘The War of the Worlds’ was meant to be a fictional story. It was never intended to be dupe or trick people. People were just too oblivious to notice.

Today, that obliviousness is still a problem. People are still very gullible and everything that they see on their Facebook timeline or in their WhatsApp chat box is considered true. They don’t think twice about trying to verify information before forwarding it out.

Azalina said that she and her team are now actively meeting all the different stakeholders to gather thoughts and suggestions for the new law. They are meeting people across the board, from the Attorney-General’s Chambers and even members of the opposition.

She said that Malaysia is a multicultural and multireligious society. This would mean that a lot would be at stake if something negative were to happen because of the spread of fake news. The government is afraid that there may be quarters that would destabilise things.

However, I am quite sceptical. Why is there a need to create new laws to curb fake news? Aren’t the existing laws sufficient enough to do that? I mean, as I have mentioned earlier, fake news isn’t exactly a new problem that is plaguing the public.

Another layer of control

Laws that are related to defamation exists in every country, including here in Malaysia. In a nutshell, what it says is that nobody can say bad things to ruin another person’s reputation without proof or evidence. And if it is done, that person can be punished.

Under defamation, it can be further divided into two categories. There is libel, which is defamation in the printed word (such as newspapers, magazines, books or online). Then there is slander, which is defamation in spoken word (such as in broadcast or online).

The Defamation Act should be able to curb fake news. If that isn’t enough, we have the Sedition Act which states that anything which would “bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against” the government or engender “feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races” as illegal.

This law is highly controversial and is deemed archaic because of how broad the definition of sedition is. However, it is obvious that it can also be used to curb fake news. In fact, it has already been used to charge people who have allegedly spread lies.

The Sedition Act opens up a whole can of worms for me and for many other Malaysians of how the government’s intention isn’t really to curb fake news. Instead, what they really want to do is to be like Big Brother and curb any dissent from the public.

We have long had laws that were introduced to keep tabs on the media such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) which states that all newspapers need to apply for an annual licence from the Home Ministry. The minister is given absolute discretion when it comes to granting the licences.

Malaysia also has the Broadcasting Act that allows the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia (MCMC) to control broadcasters in the country. It gives the authority to the government to determine what can and cannot be distributed via broadcast which consists of television and radio.

We also have the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) which allows MCMC to monitor everything that happens in the digital and online sphere. Many people have already been hauled up in court for their postings on their social media pages.

It is evident that there are already many laws in place that allows the government to keep tabs and monitor the spread of information in the country very closely. In fact, there have been many times when it is also evident that these laws have been used to intimidate the public.

So how can we actually be confident that this new attempt at creating laws that will apparently curb fake news isn’t just a way for the government to further control the spread of information in the country and to curb freedom of speech instead?

I, for one, am not that confident.

[This article was originally written for and published at Malaysiakini.com]

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