It is clear that the approach being taken, yet again, is a top-down one, with the BN regime calling the shots, say Gayathry Venkiteswaran and Rom Nain.
Perhaps, the most astute and pertinent comment made so far regarding Barisan Nasional’s concern about what it considers to be “fake news” has been this one we found on one social media platform: “Easy, disband RTM and get rid of Utusan… 95% fake news gone.”
It is amazing and alarming – albeit rather predictable – how quickly this regime is moving to legislate against purported “fake news”.
And, thus far, how surreptitiously, too.
The earliest report on this proposed legislation was on 28 January, when Prime Minister Najib Razak declared the regime’s intentions at a gathering in Kelantan.
His “comforting” words were: “We don’t want this fake news to spread. This does not mean we control the internet. The internet is free, but freedom must exist with the elements of accountability.”
Accountability to the regime, presumably.
Be that as it may, the recent weeks have seen a flurry of behind-the-scenes activities.
Numerous regime officials, led by Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Azalina Othman Said, have come out to support the move.
Azalina has asserted that all stakeholders will be consulted before any bill is presented in Parliament. We understand that her committee of stakeholders has already held a couple of meetings, but many of us have little clue as to who the “stakeholders” are.
One clearly partisan website has reported that this drafting committee “comprises representatives from the police, Attorney General’s Chambers, National Security Council, Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, Communications and Multimedia Ministry, and Legal Affairs Division”.
While they all may sound terribly officious, we do wonder, though, how representative of Malaysian stakeholders they really are.
Where, indeed, in this committee are the opposition MPs, civil society representatives, academics and even independent lawyers?
What is more disconcerting and ominous is that their plan is to table and pass the proposed legislation in the next parliamentary sitting, just before the general election.
Not surprisingly, many believe that this is yet another nasty move on the part of a regime hell-bent on curbing alternative explanations, especially those provided by more-independent news portals and via social media.
To be sure, the term “fake news” is now a catch-all phrase for political opinion, rumours, speculation, false advertising, news stories with errors, etc.
What it actually refers to is propaganda, disinformation, and the deliberate creation and dissemination of false content to mislead/misinform the public.
“Fake news” has been with us way before the advent of the internet and the spread of social media. And, much of it has been manufactured and circulated by the government.
Study after academic study of Malaysian media have shown that the BN regime has a history of censoring political content and manipulating information during elections.
And, of course, the spreading of what one former director-general of broadcasting called “half-truths”.
Today’s “fake news” is essentially “half-truths” in new packaging. And if – as all these widely published studies since at least 1990 have shown – BN is the main perpetrator and producer of “fake news”, letting a committee led by it to legislate against its notion of “fake news” would only serve the coalition’s goals, and not the goals of democracy and fair play.
What is more likely is that the committee will not too cleverly use its notion of “fake news” to legitimise further the government’s suppression of opinions and expression.
And, despite the predictable brushing aside of these fears by people like Azalina, this development must be seen in the context of the BN’s strategies for every general election – the domination of news and points of view by all media.
By constantly referring to or alleging that something is “fake news”, they try to create a sense of panic, an environment of fear and of imminent threats to society.
But, there is no evidence, less so, credible ones, to support this so-called “concern” about “fake news” and its effects in Malaysia.
We have witnessed such tactics before, and they are aimed at inculcating a sense of helplessness and, subsequently, dependence on the government to fix the problem.
But there is nothing benign about this government. It wants to control information flow, and censor opinions and expressions that run contrary to its own.
BN’s political agenda is clear, especially given that its committee will begin its work (without us being openly informed as to who the members of the committee are, and its terms of reference) and, possibly, introduce legislation in the next parliamentary sitting.
It is clear that the approach being taken, yet again, is a top-down one, with the BN regime calling the shots, determining what constitutes “fake news”.
If – as all those academic studies have revealed – the BN regime is the dominant source of (fake) news and information, surely, letting the regime now define the terms of and designing “fake news” legislation is akin to letting the fox guard the chicken coop?
Gayathry Venkiteswaran and Rom Nain are from the Centre for the Study of Communications and Culture, University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus.