Malaysia is mulling criminal punishment for people who spread fake news.
A proposed law would allow for a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail and/or over $110,000 in fines for people who are found guilty of spreading fake news, which is defined in the legislation as “news, information, data or reports which is or are wholly or partly false” and which Reuters notes also “includes features, visuals and audio recordings.” Some people are concerned because of the “partly false” clause that vaguely leaves everything open to the authorities’ broad interpretation and potential abuse in suppressing legitimate political dissent, which is all the more relevant in Malaysia’s domestic political context because of an ongoing corruption scandal that threatens the incumbent government ahead of forthcoming elections in the near future.
One of the points that’s worrying about this proposal and any copycats that might spring up abroad afterwards is that it doesn’t specify what’s meant by “publishing” the so-called fake news, meaning that the punitive terms contained within the draft could possibly be directed against people who share controversial links on social media or even just react to them and inadvertently prompt the platform’s algorithm to make their interaction pop up on other people’s newsfeeds. Another issue is that the suggested law doesn’t differentiate between reporting, commentary, and analysis, three interconnected media and journalistic topics that are oftentimes wrongly conflated with one another like in this case.
Openly false news that’s deceptively reported as true and designed to provoke physical reactions from the public such as protests, violent riots, flag & effigy burnings, and other such behavior is weaponized information and a form of Hybrid Warfare, but opinionated commentary and deep analysis are natural reactions to events of relevant domestic and international political importance, the diversity of which is a hallmark of a democratic state so long as it’s well-intended and within the bounds of legality & proper social standards. Peaceful dissent and a wide range of respectable discourse should be tolerated otherwise governments will drive individuals underground and into potential contact with extremist & terrorist groups via a political version of the so-called “gateway theory”.
The most effective means for clarifying misleading narratives and counteracting the inaccurate ones is through fact-checkers, which could be affiliated with the government either directly or through state sponsorship of pertinent NGOs (GONGOs), and who would then disseminate their counter-narratives through Mainstream and Alternative Medias. The stifling of free speech by de-facto intimidating people from expressing “politically incorrect” commentary under the basis of combating fake news, no matter if this is the state’s deliberate intent or not, will inevitably exacerbate domestic tensions inside any society with time, so governments such as Malaysia’s must exercise the utmost caution in proceeding with their proposed plans.