Journalism body: Fake news law threatens media freedom

International journalism body RSF says there are already laws in place to deal with false news. (Reuters pic)

KUALA LUMPUR: Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has urged the government to drop the proposed law against fake news due for debate in the current Parliament session.

In a statement today, RSF said the proposed law had “all the hallmarks of a new government weapon for suppressing media freedom”.

It said the bill had been finalised by a special committee – comprising representatives of the government, police, National Security Council and Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) – set up by Prime Minister Najib Razak on Jan 30 after he and his government declared war on “fake news”.

It also noted that there were already sufficient laws – such as Article 8A of the 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act and Article 233 (1) of the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act – which penalised the dissemination of false news and information.

Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, said: “It is not the government’s job to determine the truth of the reporting that is the product of journalistic work.

“Parliament must roundly reject this bill because it contributes nothing new to the fight against the dissemination of deliberately false information, and would pose an additional threat to media freedom which is already drastically suppressed by existing laws.

“The concept of ‘fake news’ used in this bill is much too vague to be subject to such heavy penalties.”

He said MCMC chief operating officer Mazlan Ismail had called for a tenfold increase in penalties and that, in this case, what the bill defined as “fake news” would be punishable with a fine of RM500,000 and 10 years in prison.

“The government already began to transform itself into a ‘Ministry of Truth’ when it created a ‘news checking’ online platform called (‘In Truth’ in Malay) in March 2017. The authorities use the platform to denounce and ‘correct’ what they consider to be fake news.”

Bastard said RSF shared the concerns of Malaysia’s human rights defenders about the bill, “which could lead to more arrests of journalists and government critics just months before elections” are held. The general election has to be held by August.

Bastard also noted that Malaysia was already ranked 144th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.

Speaking at a forum last month, MCMC’s Network Security, New Media Monitoring, Compliance and Advocacy Sector chief officer Fadhlullah Suhaimi Abdul Malek said the proposed law was to protect the people.

The proposed law would also empower agencies such as MCMC to get court orders to force platform providers such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to remove postings which were “in breach of Malaysian laws and norms”.

The Centre for Independent Journalism had earlier said such a law would be a threat to journalism in Malaysia.

Lawyer’s for Liberty, in criticising the move, had said: “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.”

Former de facto law minister Zaid Ibrahim, in questioning the rationale for additional laws when there were adequate existing laws to handle such maters, asked: “Why are we punishing citizens who give their views about matters that are of concern to them even if they hurt the feelings of the leaders? If you do not want your feelings hurt, why go into politics?”