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When the truth hurts: Malaysia's 'anti-fake-news bill'

New censorship law ushers in era of even greater repression as PM Najib Razak faces battle to stay in power reporter, Kuala Lumpur reporter, Kuala Lumpur

Updated: April 13, 2018 10:43 AM GMT
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When the truth hurts: Malaysia's 'anti-fake-news bill'

This March 2016 file photo shows a poster denigrating Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. A designer's caricatures of the scandal-plagued PM as a sinister clown became a viral phenomenon on social media. (Photo by Mohd Rasfan/AFP)

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Malaysians were just getting used to being better informed through social media after years of being fed hype dressed up as news. They had been fast taking to the internet as a forum for debate — and they were relishing it.

They enjoyed this newfound freedom to speak and criticize no less than others who are lucky enough to live in democracies.

The fourth estate in the country had frittered away all credibility by behaving more like lobbyists for the government. They were often seen as docile, unwilling to challenge those in authority, easily bought off with gifts and made to publish (or withhold) stories in the interests of the powerful.

So when the government announced in April 2018 that it was putting up a "fake news" firewall around everyone, Malaysians were stunned.

One letter writer eloquently seeking clarification on the new law wanted to know if the government truly believed that U.S. President Donald Trump — a man who clearly has great disdain for the truth — could be a role model for Malaysia.

Perhaps the first worrisome thing about the Anti-Fake News Bill 2018 was the lack of public consultation beforehand.

The bill, which provides up to six years' imprisonment and a fine of 500,000 Malaysian ringgit (US$130,000), was passed with minimal debate on April 2.

The government's argument was that the new law was needed for national security reasons. Claims by critics that it would restrict freedom of speech were dismissed.

The reasons for the law are opaque, and the definition of "fake news" loose. The authorities are given a lot of latitude to determine when an offense has been committed. When a law doesn't define a crime and instead leaves the definition to the authorities, it is alarming.

The law, which defines information that is either partly or wholly false as fake news, opens a Pandora's box of paradoxes.

After the initial questions — what constitutes fake news and who determines what is fake and what is fact — the predicament is clear.

For example, when reports issued by authorities contradict the official government line, whose word is treated as "fact" and whose is "fake"?

Will investigative journalism be categorized as fake news? What about satire, art, religion, beliefs, opinion, international reports or even mathematical theories?

It's not lost on many that the attempt to limit what people can say comes at a time when caretaker Prime Minister Najib Razak and his Barisan Nasional coalition government are in a bitter fight to remain in power.

For months now, the world has been treated to breathtaking bits of news involving Najib after billions of dollars were allegedly siphoned from the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund.

The vibrant online media have been publishing regular updates of international investigation reports and court hearings on the matter. It reported in December 2017 that the U.S. attorney-general had described the 1MDB scandal as the worst form of kleptocracy.

It also said the U.S. Department of Justice was working to provide justice to the victims.

Such reports have deeply embarrassed a government conscious that voters are fed up with the rising cost of living. They will go to the polls on May 9 with the government corruption scandals on their minds.

For many Malaysians, the introduction of another law restricting information on the grounds that unverified news is a danger to the country is perverse.

People have a right to free speech and expression without fear of retaliation, censorship or sanction. Even online trolls, in all their repugnance, are a small price to pay for a free society.

Those who have criticized the government are not being disloyal to the country. What they object to is oppressive governance; the segregation and racism that has taken hold; their treatment as second-class citizens; the policies that promote discord; how corruption, nepotism and criminal cover-ups are tearing the country apart and how they are being made to look like fools by the very people they elected to represent them.

The bill's vague and broad definition seems designed to safeguard the present-day government, instead of Malaysian citizens, as it will justify the government's future action to target journalists, human rights defenders and critics.

The law will be trotted out to threaten anyone who speaks out or dares to question or criticize the government.

The only conclusion to draw is that this is a censorship law camouflaged as being anti-fake news.

Its aim is to bully Malaysians into submission, dealing a blow to the government's ambition of becoming a developed nation with an enlightened and free society.

It will not stop Malaysians with controversial views speaking out, especially on social media.

But shouldn't the laws of the land protect her citizens rather than victimize them?

By imposing this new law, those in power now are causing more harm to Malaysia and its democratic process by doing more to alienate citizens from political participation and debate than any tweet or blog posting could.

The answer to fake news is to prove otherwise and provide accurate news that is worth reading about, not offering impoverishment and jail.

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