Freedom of speech is the new censorship


Freedom of speech is the new censorship
By Zan Azlee

Ever since the new government was voted in during the May 9 general election, we have seen a lot of discussions happening regarding human rights, civil liberties and democracy. This is kind of natural as far as our progression is concerned in Malaysia.

This is because for, over 60 years, the former Barisan Nasional government has been actually stifling democracy or manipulating it in order for them to stay in power. Among the topics that have been hotly debated is freedom of speech.

In Malaysia, we have a lot of systematic structures in place that help the government to do that. We have such things like the Printing Presses and Publishing Acts 1984, we have the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (AUKU) in the universities and we have the Sedition Act. That’s still not the full comprehensive list.

All of these laws that are in place are actually there to serve to prevent the media from actually being free. And if you look at it, only a few actually control the media. This is the old model where only certain gatekeepers have access to the media because of the high barriers of entry.

This is because you need money to actually print and publish a newspaper. You need money if you actually wanted to run a broadcast radio station or a television station. Basically, you need money to actually have media organisations.

And because of that, there were only a handful of media organisations that control the information going out to the public. So all it takes is a few policies that allow the government to influence this handful of media organisations and that’s it – you have a controlled media.

You would think that in this day and age when everyone has access to disseminate information easily, these systematic forms of censorship would no longer be a factor. So yay for freedom of speech, right? Wrong.

All this was well and good for way back then. It was effective in trying to control the information that was going out to the people. You squeezed the gonads of those who were in charge of the dissemination of the information. If you could influence (ie: scare) the editors and owners of the media organisations, then there you go.

Real danger

But today, the media is a totally different beast. Like I previously mentioned, barriers of entry no longer exists and everyone has access to disseminate information. And how do you police that? Or should you even police it? It is supposed to be a democracy, right? So maybe you shouldn’t.

The fact of the matter is that censorship now is no longer a problem that hinders democracy. What is more of a threat these days is the fact that there is no way to control information. As long as there is something that can capture the attention of the audience, it will spread and spread and spread.

It wouldn’t even matter if the particular content is true or false because with the ease of disseminating information, truth is no longer what determines popularity. Instead, the popularity, or more accurately, the virality of a story is determined by how sensational the story is.

The real danger to this is the fact that truth and facts no longer mean anything. It is just a flurry of information that gets forwarded everywhere and by everyone that everything is just considered true and factual. This isn’t just a predicament that we face here in Malaysia, but globally.

So if there is freedom of speech and everyone gets to say their piece and media organisations get to report freely, it can easily be countered and drowned out by unsubstantiated and unconfirmed content that is so sensational that people with just a click of the button can share and forward it.

It doesn’t help either that social media platforms have algorithms that highlight and maximise these sensationalised shares just because it garners eyeballs. What is interesting gets hyped up and the truth faces the risk of being pushed down and drowned out.

We see this happening here in Malaysia with all these cybertroopers spreading all kinds of stories So what can be done? At the moment, nothing much. Maybe in the future, when things get a little clearer, we can figure out policies and laws to help curb this.

But for now, society needs to be mature and intelligent enough to be aware of the types of content that they consumed. We can’t be too gullible, and even if we aren’t gullible and forward these stories for the fun of it, you are already part of the problem.

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

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