Despite mounting domestic opposition, the administration of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak appears determined to ram through parliament an odious bill ostensibly intended to curb fake news.
Though the government insists that the law is not intended to stop people from exercising their right to freedom of speech as provided for in the Federal Constitution, there is every reason to be seriously concerned. Under the guise of curbing fake news, the bill will gravely impair what remains of free speech and the right to dissent. The consequences will be devastating.
An array of civil society and human rights groups, journalists, lawyers, politicians and prominent national leaders are in unanimous agreement that the pending bill represents a fatal assault on our democracy. If it passes, and the indications are that it will (thanks to the shameful dereliction of duty of so many of our MPs), it will mean the end of the road for democracy in Malaysia.
Enforcing submission and conformity
The draft bill defines “fake news” as “any news, information, data and reports, which is or are wholly or partly false, whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas.” It is a definition so vague and wide that it enables the government to go after anyone anywhere for any report, view or opinion. Nothing and no one will be safe from its reach.
As well, the scope of the bill is so expansive that it can be applied to anything from dubious deals with China to the scandalous conduct of officials. It gives the government the power to black out anything it doesn’t like or wants to hide.
And those found guilty of maliciously creating, offering, publishing, printing, distributing, circulating or disseminating fake news can be punished with a fine of up to RM500,000 or up to 6 years imprisonment (reduced from the original 10 after protests). Even someone who provides financing to a publication or blog that is charged with disseminating fake news can be liable.
In comparison to penalties provided for under other statutes, these punishments are excessive and harsh and appear designed to terrorize citizens into submission and conformity.
It is often said that he who controls the news shapes the way people think; shape the way people think and you have power to manipulate an entire nation. And that is what this is really about and why it is so insidious.
In making the government (read UMNO) the final arbitrator of truth and falsehood, the bill will also empower UMNO to ensure that only its narrative of events prevail. There’ll be no room for criticism, dissenting views and opposing opinions. Investigative journalism and reporting on corruption and scandal in high places will cease.
In a foretaste of what is to come, the Communications and Multimedia Ministry warned only a few days ago of “stern actions” against those “propagating and spreading fake news” in relation to the 1MDB scandal, with officials insisting that information from sources other than the Malaysian government will be considered fake news.
In other words, it might soon be impossible to discuss the 1MDB issue objectively or to disagree with the government’s take on the issue.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this bill is not about protecting the nation’s security and stability but about protecting an increasingly unpopular political party from the people, shielding their misdeeds and failures from public scrutiny and accountability. It is not fake news that’s the target but the truth itself. It’s a new low even for UMNO-BN.
And the haste with which they are pushing through this bill – in the dying days of the current parliament – suggests that they intend to use this bill to prevent the opposition from making corruption and malfeasance an election issue. Unable to defend their disgraceful record in office, they have opted to muzzle their critics instead.
The dark shadow of tyranny grows long over our nation. The lights are going out on our democracy. This may well be the last time that any of us will be able to freely express our views.
One small sliver of hope remains to us before the lights go out completely – GE14. We must act now to safeguard what’s left of our democracy by denying this government another term in office. Make no mistake: a vote for UMNO-BN is a vote for the final end of our democracy.
[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 30th March 2018]