Press statement by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser 22 March 2018

President Donald Trump’s “fake news” mantra has inspired authoritarian leaders elsewhere to manufacture new laws that can both target legitimate media outlets that are critical of them and further violate the media’s ability to exercise freedom of expression. The Malaysian government has thus far suspended media and blocked websites that have hounded the Prime Minister over the 1MDB affair, and I believe, has recently launched a website to counter “fake news”. Nonetheless, 1MDB is being investigated in at least six countries for money-laundering and misappropriation of funds and cannot be so easily canned as “fake news”.

To start with, a clear definition of ‘fake news’ would be useful. Donald Trump calls any journalism or reporting that he disagrees with, “fake news”. As such, the challenge to journalism and the freedom of expression could not be more menacing. Let’s hope the definition in the new bill in the Malaysian Parliament next week will be more rigorous.

Now, if we are talking about misinformation, spin, lies and deceit, these have been around in Malaysian society for quite a while. Unfortunately, in recent cases the most serious perpetrators have been the representatives of the Malaysian government itself and not any mischievous sector of the Malaysian citizenry. As Hitler argues in Mein Kampf, the big lie always carries credibility and as history demonstrates, it is usually the state that is capable of the big lie.

Kuli’s tengkolok, 1990

As the 14th general election draws near, I am reminded of the ruling coalition’s big lie about the ‘tengkolok’ won by Tengku Razaleigh, the leader of the Opposition Front in Sabah just before the 1990 general election. The DAP’s National Chairman Lim Kit Siang was indignant:

“Two days before the polling day in the 1990 general election, radio, television and the Malay press were mobilised to saturate the Malay heartland with the accusation that Tengku Razaleigh had sold out the Malay race and honour and betrayed Islam, giving as proof his wearing of a Kadazan headgear purportedly bearing the Christian cross…Attempts by Semangat 46 to show that Mahathir had himself worn a Kadazan headgear with a similar motif when he visited Sabah during the election campaign failed to counter the mischievous and malicious last-minute Barisan Nasional propaganda – effectively breaking the political challenge and marking the demise of Semangat 46 led by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah.” (Press statement, 29th March 2002)

This was fake news before the era of social media but the ruling coalition had its traditional way of propagating the big lie all over the rural Malay heartland. Could any law against ‘fake news’ have been effective to contain such a big lie when all that mattered to the ruling coalition at the time was winning the election? Could Tengku Razaleigh have relied on such a law against ‘fake news’ to restore some justice to his case? I doubt it.

It is ironical that the proposed laws to combat “fake news” have now been justified by officials who warn of the heightened dangers of fabricated information during election periods, claiming more powers are necessary for the state “in order to protect democracy”.

Irene Fernandez’s publication of ‘false news’

Another Malaysian case was seen in 1995 when Tenaganita released an investigative report documenting the beatings and sexual violence perpetrated against detainees by prison guards, and also the inadequate food and water provided in Malaysia’s immigration detention camps. Irene Fernandez was arrested in March 1996 and charged with “malicious publication of false news” under the draconian Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) of 1984. After seven years of trial, she was found guilty in 2003 and sentenced to a year in prison. She was released on bail pending her appeal and the conviction was finally overturned in November 2008, ending the unprecedented 13-year case.

Irene’s case is a reminder to us that we have had the oppressive PPPA since 1984, legislated in the bad old days before Dr Mahathir became a born-again democrat. In Irene’s case, it was not only her right to freedom of expression that was being denied but the suppression of the truth about the conditions suffered by migrants and refugees in our immigration detention camps.

The PPPA is of course not the only law in the Malaysian statutes that violates the freedom of expression. Existing laws that deal with ‘fake news’ include Section 499 & 124I of the Penal Code, Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 and Sections 10A and 10(1A) of the Sedition Act 1948.

So, how much more draconian and all-embracing is the new Fake News Bill likely to be when compared with the PPPA? Who will decide what is fake news? Judges? The government?”

Educate the public about fake news

In order to encourage an open and healthy democratic system, it is the role of the government to create the space that promotes news literacy and professional investigative journalism. Only when our news industry provides what we see as high-quality, professional and independent journalism can we build public trust and correct fake news and disinformation. It is the responsibility of technology companies to invest in tools that identify fake news and improve online accountability, and it is the proof of our effective educational institutions when our graduates have the “HOTS” (higher order thinking skills) to access a diversity of news sources and develop a healthy skepticism of what they read and watch.

The Government should know you can’t combat “fake news” with more draconian “fake” laws.

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