Photo: An advertisement in a public transit terminal reminds commuters not to spread fake news online.
It’s no secret that in this modern age of fast and easy communication, fake news has become a serious threat to justice and democracy. Each country has reacted differently to this new challenge, with some fighting it full force and others embracing it to their own advantages. One of these strategies in particular attracted the world’s attention this week, though, when the Malaysian government introduced its controversial “anti-fake news bill”. The new policy could charge offenders with up to six years in prison for spreading “any news, information, data and reports which 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.”
At first, this plan may seem as though it could have some merit. Fake news is, after all, a grave and near universal problem today. A recent Freedom House report found that online manipulation tactics, including fake news, played a significant role in more than 18 elections last year. This, on top of the other ways that fake news affects and shapes society, also led to a fall in global internet freedom for the seventh consecutive year. All this is to say that the world simply has not figured out how to address this serious threat.
Malaysia’s strategy does seem to attack fake news directly, and it would perhaps be a good tactic if the articles themselves were the primary issue. As is demonstrated by the Freedom House report, however, the critical challenges are rather the intentional manipulation of information and the world’s diminishing internet freedom. These are therefore the standards by which Malaysia’s new policy should be measured.
Examining the “anti-fake news bill” through this lens, it quickly proves problematic. The government’s definition of fake news, for example, includes unverified speculation or conclusions by reporters. With upcoming elections in August, and with Prime Minister Najib Razak currently in the midst of a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal, the bill comes at a distinctly opportune time. The country’s Deputy Communications Minister last week declared that any information about the corruption scandal not confirmed by government would be considered “fake news” and subject to punishment under the new policy. In this way, the bill is a direct assault on free expression and transparency.
“The vague and broad definition of ‘fake news’, combined with severe punishments and arbitrary arrest powers for police, shows that this is nothing but a blatant attempt to shield the government from peaceful criticism,” said James Gomez of Amnesty International. Human Rights Watch similarly condemned the bill, adding that “The Malaysian government has no monopoly on the truth, but it’s attempting to be the arbiter of what can and can’t be said and written.”
The heavy criticism by national opposition and international critics unfortunately holds little promise for stopping the bill from being passed. Although the government did lower the proposed sentence to a maximum of six years imprisonment, from the original maximum of ten, it has simultaneously denied any attempts to stifle debate or prevent discussion of the prime minister’s corruption scandal. The bill will nevertheless achieve these ends, even if violators do end up serving a somewhat shorter prison sentence.
Malaysia’s “anti-fake news bill” addresses neither of the issues that pervasive fake news presents to the world today. On the contrary, by both decreasing internet freedom and deliberately manipulating the information available to its citizens, this bill is effectively propagating the very crisis that it was allegedly written to combat. The people of Malaysia must therefore continue to fight for transparency, the media must continue to investigate serious national scandals, and on a broader global scale, the battle against fake news must rage on.