Waging a war on two fronts

  • Nation
  • Friday, 27 Mar 2020

PUTRAJAYA: As Malaysia steps up its fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, the government is also waging another war related to the killer virus, on a different front.

Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah (pic) said the number of fake news articles, seditious postings and scams has seen a marked increase.

He sounded the alert that there have been reports of scams by people who claim to be selling face masks and hand sanitisers, but no goods were delivered after money had been paid online.

“There is also a global alert that counterfeit face masks, substandard hand sanitisers and unauthorised antiviral medication have been on sale online.

“The authorities are watching those who are involved in any illicit online sale of medicines and medical products, ” he said in an interview via Skype.

“We want to see accurate, reliable and credible information but at the same time, we have also received reports and complaints of fake news which does not help Malaysians at all. Some of this can lead to panic, while others can raise tensions because of racial and religious undertones.

“Let me warn those involved that we are watching and action will be taken, ” he said.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has described it as a “massive infodemic”, the “over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”

One senior WHO official has even said that we need a “vaccination against the virus of misinformation”.

Saifuddin cited an example of an online portal, which has been censured for misquoting Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Dr Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri on the launch of the Malaysian Islamic Development Department’s (Jakim) Tabung Musa’adah Covid-19.

Though the fund is meant to help communities affected by the outbreak, the report quoted the Minister as having said that the fund was exclusively for Muslims.

The report has since been corrected, but had caused an unnecessary uproar among netizens.

Saifuddin said his ministry was already investigating over 40 cases of fake news that could cause public confusion during the movement control order (MCO) that is now in place.

He said of this number, more than a quarter have had investigation papers opened, about half of which (five) will be proceeding to the prosecution stage under Section 505 (b) of the Penal Code.

He said they included, among others, a claim that the Defence Ministry would seek the help of veterans to enforce the MCO, a voice message alleging military personnel are authorised to hit people, a supposed Covid-19 prevention guide by Japanese doctors, and a claim that the Health Ministry is asking for donations.

Also under investigation is a video gone viral of a man accusing the Malaysian Chinese community of spreading the virus.

Saifuddin said anyone who deliberately caused public fear or anxiety could be jailed up to two years or fined, or both, if convicted under Section 505(b) of the Penal Code.

He also said those who disseminated content that is obscene, false or threatening to others could be slapped with a maximum fine of RM50,000 or imprisonment of up to one year or both under Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998.

Saifuddin said the Ministry was collaborating with the police, the Home Ministry and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) in acting against those who spread fake news on Covid-19.

“The MCMC and police will continue to work together in addressing the ongoing dissemination of fake news, especially on Covid-19, that can mislead and create anxiety among Malaysians, ” he said.

From the start of the MCO on March 18, the Ministry rolled out its Covid-19 Strategic Communications Action Plan in synch with the National Security Council.

This includes a Rapid Response Team to expeditiously deal with the spread of fake, misleading and disruptive information.

Saifuddin said the Ministry’s Covid-19 Strategic Communications Team was also involved in the dissemination of accurate information to promote self-hygiene, staying at home, and social distancing.

“We are not just involved in the enforcement aspects but also in educating and raising awareness of the public, as we think Malaysians need to understand the seriousness of this disease, ” he said.

He added that there is still about 5% of the population, or 1.6 million, who are not yet in compliance with the MCO, noting this was a huge number.

Saifuddin said the Ministry’s Covid-19 Strategic Communications Team also carried out detailed analyses on the impact of the disease and MCO on the economy, jobs, businesses and public sentiment to determine its impact on the individual as we mobilise the nation in the war against Covid-19.

“We need the help of everyone, including leaders of all religions. Their congregations must understand that the virus does not pick victims according to their race, colour or creed.

“God helps those who help themselves. Let us leave race and religion out of it.

“Please remember that our frontliners, especially the doctors and nurses, the police and armed forces, come from all races and faith. They are putting their lives on the line for you.”

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