Senior Minister and Minister of Defence Ismail Sabri Yaakob recently warned that “MCMC and also the police will take stern action [against] news portals that broadcast and publish confusing, inaccurate news.” He said that the government is concerned because “untrue, inaccurate and misleading news can confuse the public, and cause the rakyat to worry.”
There is no doubt that fake news, especially during this time of heightened concern about the deadly coronavirus pandemic, could cause alarm and undermine the heroic efforts of our healthcare officials to contain the spread of the virus.
What is worrying, however, is that the minister then went on to define “fake news” as news that “instils hatred towards the ruling government and leaders” or news that could cause “distrust in the ruling government.” [Malaysiakini, 11th April 2020]
This goes well beyond concerns related to the pandemic and appears designed to curtail criticism of the government. As many human rights lawyers and media representatives have already pointed out, it is simply too broad a definition and will have the effect of criminalizing dissent and criticism of the government. It will invariably usher in a new era of censorship that will further throttle our already fragile democracy.
In a democracy, elected representatives should at all times be accountable to the electorate; they certainly should not expect to be shielded from criticism, no matter how harsh. We need more accountability and transparency, not less.
It also raises concerns about the potential for frivolous, politically motivated prosecutions. Kuantan MP Fauziah Salleh, for example, is being investigated over a video she reportedly posted of an allegedly out-of-control situation at the immigration complex in Johor Bahru. It turned out to be an old video unrelated to the current situation. It would have been enough to simply refute her allegations. After all, she made a fool of herself and damaged her own credibility; that should be punishment enough.
Besides, our health minister made the asinine claim in a television interview recently that drinking warm water could flush out the Covid-19 virus from one’s body. Isn’t that fake news too? Like Fauziah, the health minister made a stupid statement and was rightly chastised for it by the public; that’s the way it should be.
At times of national emergencies, governments always tend to accrue crisis powers; we must be watchful to ensure that this backdoor government doesn’t abuse its authority to stifle our democratic rights. The coronavirus lockdown mustn’t be allowed to morph into a lockdown on democracy as well.
[Dennis Ignatius |Kuala Lumpur |14th April 2020]