On Monday, Malaysia’s parliament introduced legislation to ban the publication of fake news. Lawbreakers could face a hefty fine of over £90’000 or a 6-year jail term. While this may seem like a courageous and progressive move, critics of this legislation fear that its introduction will lead to the silencing of dissenting voices in the country. So, is anti-fake news legislation a good thing or a bad thing?
Critics fear legislation may turn Malaysia into a dictatorship
Following a feverish debate, the legislation was passed by 123 votes to 64. The proposed punishment of a ten-year jail term was reduced to six years and the fine set at 500’000 ringgit. Opponents of the bill accused the government of introducing the laws to silence discussions surrounding a multi-billion dollar scandal involving Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak. Though the election is only to be held in August, Razak is expected to announce early elections within days.
The legislation covers all media in Malaysia as well as foreign media sources. As the legislation was rushed through parliament, critics also fear that it is designed to silence critics who’ve been vocal in their opposition to the newly-introduced election constituency boundaries. Voicing his opposition, lawmaker, Lim Guan Eng, said that existing laws provided sufficient protection and that “this will see one step forward to dictatorship, this is more than autocracy.”
However, the minister in charge of social media said that the platforms were unable to stop the publication of fake news, adding that the legislation would enable the courts to “decide what is fake news.”
The government accuses the opposition of publishing fake news
Accusing the opposition of attempting to sway votes with fake news, Malaysia’s government said that unverified news relating to the indebted 1MBD state fund was fake.
Several countries, including the US, have been investigating money laundering and cross-border embezzlement allegations at 1MBD, set up and once led by Najib. The state fund was established to promote economic growth, however, it has accumulated billions in depth. According to the Associated Press, the US Justice Department is attempting to seize 1.7 billion reportedly taken from the fund for the purchase of assets in the US. At least 4.5 billion have allegedly been stolen from 1MBD by Najib associates.
After this story broke three years ago, Najib fired several critics and continues to deny any involvement. Support for the government has been in decline for several years. Nonetheless, government sources believe that in-fighting among the opposition will lead to a government victory in the upcoming elections.
Other Asian nations are also believed to be close to introducing anti-fake news legislation.
Should anti-fake news legislation be introduced everywhere?
While opponents of anti-fake news legislation fear that such laws could curtail the freedom of expression and provide dictatorial governments with the tools to silence any opposition, several governments have been considering its introduction.
In January 2018, the French Prime Minister, Emmanuel Macron promised to improve media laws this year. Following his election, Macron has been particularly critical of Russian media sources, accusing them of spreading false information about him, so the Independent reported in January 2018.
Social media platforms would have to operate to suit this legislation, especially in pre-election periods. Macron also said that such legislation would change the work of the French media watchdog, the CSA, drastically. Apart from websites having to disclose financial sources for content, the amount spent on sponsored content would also be capped.
In addition, French authorities would have the power to take emergency legal action against anyone publishing fake news stories. This would mean blocking the publication of specific content or even websites. Responding to critics, Macron said that such legislation would not curtail the freedom of the press, especially since it would only apply in the run-up to elections.
EU report on dealing with fake news
In March, the EU published a lengthy report on ways of counteracting fake news. In it, it recommends the establishment of a coalition comprising of social media representatives, journalists, and members of the public, collaborating in the fight against disinformation. Among other tasks, this coalition would pen a “code of practices.” While the recommendations make no suggestion of making the spreading of disinformation illegal, fact-checking lies at the core of its approach.
The motivation behind the publication of disinformation would also fall under scrutiny, with stakeholders as well as sponsors coming under the spotlight. While many observers consider this report as lacking in real substance, it will become part of a more comprehensive EU commission plan due before the summer of this year.
Fake news, a multi-edged sword bandied about by everyone
The term fake news has been saturating media pages over the last couple of years. From Donald Trump right through to Cambridge Analytica representatives, the spreading of disinformation has been used to boost political careers and destroy them. Meanwhile, politicians cry fake news when opponents point out failures and stakeholders create them for financial or political gains.
Social media platforms are caught in the middle, seemingly unwilling or perhaps unable to stem the flow of disinformation. Elections and referendums may have been lost or won through the use of fake news. So, should governments across the globe take action now, just like the Malaysian government, and introduce anti-fake news legislation? Or should we maintain the status quo to protect the freedom of the press?