Government’s special committee to combat ‘fake news’ raises serious concerns
2 February 2018
Lawyers for Liberty view with serious concern the recent announcement by Minister Azalina Othman Said that Putrajaya has formed a special committee to formulate laws to tackle ‘fake news’.
While we agree that fabricated news content is a concern, the efforts made to curb their propagation should not come at the expense of freedom of speech, expression, information and the press.
Questions must surely be asked as to how the special committee will define ‘fake news’. For example, there is a distinction to be made between information that is blatantly fabricated, and information that has been spun to lean a certain way, a la political propaganda, and legitimate news reporting but containing errors.
Can we seriously expect the authorities to be the impartial arbiter, or will they arbitrarily interpret unfavourable news as ‘fake news’? Will we have an Orwellian version of ‘the truth’, i.e. it is only ‘true’ if the information has been verified by the government?
There are serious concerns that disputed or genuine errors in reporting will become a pretext to attack independent media outlets. We have seen Malaysiakini investigated numerous times and its editor in chief & CEO charged for uploading a video of an allegedly ‘offensive’ press conference. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) has also arbitrarily blocked access to several websites due to genuine reporting that has upset the government, including The Malaysian Insider, causing the news portal to shut down.
‘Fake news’ is not the exaggerated threat to public order or national security that the government has made it out to be but merely the reality of the Internet and social media. Instead, the authorities must come to terms with this phenomenon, as any individual with access to information and communications technology and sinister intentions can readily create and disseminate ‘fake news’.
Currently, there already exists a plethora of laws used to tackle ‘offensive’ speeches or communications, such as the Penal Code, Communications and Multimedia Act, Sedition Act and Printing Presses and Publications Act.
With such a wide web of legislation, is there a need for more laws that can potentially be misused as after all, we see these laws being unfairly and selectively used against those who are perceived as anti-government while those who are pro-government are usually let off.
Attempting to regulate what is ‘true’ or ‘false’ in cyberspace will be futile, as obviously, no one has a monopoly over the ‘truth’. Instead of coming up with new laws, the government should focus on educating the public to be vigilant and be aware of the sources of information, so that they become more discerning in consuming and sharing news content with others.
Lawyers for Liberty