Why is a veteran journalist supporting the fake news bill?

Why is a veteran journalist supporting the fake news bill?
By Zan Azlee

Early this week, the Anti-Fake News Bill 2018 was passed in Parliament after several days of debate. We all know what Azalina Othman Said, the minister who initiated the Bill, has said about it. It is supposed to curb the creation and spread of fake news so that the people won’t be misled.

However, the implicit reasons for the Bill isn’t that implicit. The definition of the fake news under the Bill is quite loose and it gives a lot of leeway for the authorities to define what is fake news. It is always suspicious when a Bill or Act doesn’t define a crime and instead leaves the definition to the authorities.

Many allies have defended the Bill. One big defender of it is Minister of Communications and Multimedia Salleh Said Keruak. He has been very vocal about how this is a responsible move by the government and how this will contribute positively to the development of the media in the country.

But this is expected. Salleh is a politician, and if you see his rise in his career, it follows a pattern of apple polishing and saying yes to the right people at the right time. I guess that is the price we Malaysians have to pay when we have been relying on professional politicians to run our country for so long.

What is shocking is to see journalists who have been working in the industry for decades also supporting the Bill. Two days ago, Bernama reported that the head of the National Communication Team in the Prime Minister’s Office, Abdul Rahman Sulaiman, voicing his approval on the passing of the Bill.

Abdul Rahman is a veteran journalist who started his career as a broadcast journalist at Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM) and then moved to Bernama. He had an illustrious career at the news agency and eventually retired as the editor-in-chief. One could assume that his appointment to the PM’s Office was to advise the government on matters involving the media.

So what happened? Did he now advise properly? Did he not explain that the news and media industry in Malaysia is already adequately protected from fake news by laws such as the Defamation Act and Sedition Act? Did he not see that the new Bill is just another tool the government can use to curb the spread of information and also intellectual discourse?

This former journalist was reported by the news agency which he previously led as saying that the effects of fake news have had huge negative impact on other countries such as the US and UK. He is quoted as saying:

“We have seen examples of the effects of fake or partially fake news in other countries, including Donald Trump’s successful bid for the American president in the last presidential election, and the issue of Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU).”

“Trump’s victory was not because he was great but due to the spread of false news that America suffered under the previous administration. Similarly, the news about Britain’s losses under the EU, but they now seem to have regretted leaving the union.”

1MDB issue twisted?

I have to say Abdul Rahman was wrong. For one, Trump’s win in the last US presidential election is due to much more than propaganda. It is because of a rise of a large segment of the society that has been frustrated and silent for so long. Whether that segment of society is right or wrong is a different matter.

And Trump is the one that has been calling out and accusing established and legit news organisations, like CNN, for spreading fake news and not the other way around. But the news organisations are fighting back with their reporting and that is a right of reply. Malaysia’s fake news Bill won’t allow any right of reply because it just kills any discussion before it starts.

As for the UK and Brexit, it is more or less the same issue with how Trump managed to get elected. A large segment of society that had been outnumbered before and did not speak out are suddenly afraid and decides to speak, while the other larger segment of society got complacent and felt that their beliefs and opinions were held by everyone.

Abdul Rahman seems to think that the cause is all so simple – as simple as just fake news being spread around online. It’s a wonder how this veteran journalist managed to get to where he is in his career. Or maybe that is why he is where he is in his career.

In the Bernama report, he continues to give more examples and this time, it is closer to home. He says that the 1MDB issue was twisted and turned and even made out to be related to the new goods and services tax (GST). He was quoted as saying that “In the end, the people are confused, or worse, they believe the news.”

I guess what he wants is for Malaysians to only have one side of the news and all other perspectives to be banned. Then people won’t be confused because if they have no options and are ignorant, it would be impossible to be confused.

It is very disheartening to hear that a former journalist who should be trusted to represent and be the voice of the media in the government is disappointing us. In these bleak times, what should be happening is that all journalists and media practitioners should band together and stand in solidarity against such an oppressive law.

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

Get Zan Azlee’s latest book ‘JOURNO-DAD: The chronicles of a journalist who just happens to be a dad!‘ today!


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