What is the government trying to curb – freedom of speech or fake news?

What is the government trying to curb – freedom of speech or fake news?
By Zan Azlee

First of all, let me begin by saying that hearing the number of infections dropping these last few days has had a positive effect.

It feels like everything might start getting back to normal again and we can get back to living our lives. Thank you to all those who have been responsible for holding the fort and keeping us safe – to the Health Ministry, medical staff and other authorities.

With that being said, I understand that not everything can be perfect just like how we want it to be. The Jabatan Penerangan Malaysia decided to do their part by coming up with guidelines to define what fake news is during the Covid-19 pandemic that we are going through.

I agree that we need to curb fake news and rumours because it has been getting out of hand. However, I found the infographics for the categories and definitions for fake news a little bit problematic.

The first definition is “Menjatuhkan maruah dan imej individureputasi organisasi dan negara.” Basically, it means that fake news is something that ruins the reputation and dignity of an individual, organisation or country.

In the infographics, it also explains that its impact could cause confusion and worry among the people and affect the sensitivity, privacy and reputation of the individuals, organisation and even the country.

Here is my issue. Where in the definition does it explain what fake news is? What if the news is true?

Another definition is “Menanam kebencian terhadap kerajaan pemerintah dan pemimpin”. The effect here is that it could create hate or distrust towards the government and its leaders. Here is my issue. Again, how is this a definition of fake news? What if a particular news is true, and that causes people to not trust the government?

So let’s get to the point. Although it is commendable that the government would want to curb fake news (or what is now termed as infodemic), they need to pay better attention to how they define what is fake news and what is not.

The infographic that they released to create awareness about fake news during the Covid-19 pandemic just doesn’t cut it.

The categories and definitions that they have come up with does not make any clear definitions other than declaring that the government will not tolerate any news that comes out that would lead to people not liking them.

Unfortunately, the people have a right to dislike their government if there is a valid reason for them to feel so, and that valid reason would be real news.

If there is any information or news that portrays the government in a bad light, it should be made available to the public so that they are informed.

Of course, we need to make sure that this information or news is verified, credible and true. That is what journalism is all about and is the fourth estate, or the watchdogs, of the government for the people.

By categorising and defining it the way they did, it would seem that they aren’t really interested in defining fake news.

What they seem to be really invested in is curbing any news or information, whether true or otherwise, that can tarnish their reputation and image. Basically, all they want to be out there is good news. Unfortunately, that isn’t how that works.

Take, for example, on how the Health Minister, Adham Baba (above), incorrectly informed the whole nation on television that drinking warm water can kill the coronavirus.

That will ruin the reputation of the government (and it did!). Wouldn’t Malaysians need to be informed of this so that we can decide if we actually want him as our health minister?

Well, according, to the categories and definitions released by the government, this kind of news cannot be spread even though it is true and not fake at all.

Another example would be how the Higher Education Minister, Noraini Ahmad (below) was seen wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) during a visit to a research facility when it is common knowledge that the country is in short supply of the PPEs.

That would definitely be a reason for Malaysians to question the government and reevaluate if she is someone who deserves to be a minister.

But, of course, according to the categories and definitions released by the government, this kind of news cannot be spread even though it is true and not fake at all.

I think we have reason to question the intentions of the categories and definitions of fake news that the government has released.

I think there are already laws that can curb fake news such as the Defamation Act 1957 and we can safely rely on that. If at all, we want to create awareness that it is wrong and dangerous to create and spread fake news.

However, the infographics released by the government doesn’t really do that. What it does do is to tell people that all forms of news, whether true or not, should not be distributed if it shows the government and authorities in a bad light.

That is not curbing fake news. That is actually curbing freedom of speech and the media.

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

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