The Government recently tabled a bill known as the Anti Fake News bill in the Dewan Rakyat. The bill was widely criticised by the opposition, civil society groups and media organisations. They argue that if the bill becomes law, it will be used on dissenting and opposition voices.
It cannot be denied that spread of false information is increasingly becoming an issue in our society. We need to find ways to tackle it.
However, we do not need a new law to curb ‘fake news’. We have enough laws to deal with false information.
The term ‘fake news’ was popularised by the President of the United States, Donald Trump. He constantly used the term against media which reported information which is contrary to his own version.
The Anti Fake News bill sought to give a legal definition to Trump’s un-elegant term. According to the bill, ‘fake news’ is any news, information, data and reports which is wholly or partly false, in any form which is capable of suggesting words or ideas.
From the definition, ‘fake news’ includes information which is not confined to ‘news’ alone. This will mean that if the bill is passed, it can cover almost any sort of information.
The bill makes it an offence to create, publish, circulate or disseminate any ‘fake news’ or any publication containing ‘fake news’. When the bill was first tabled, the offence would be committed if the act of creating or publishing is done ‘knowingly’, subsequently the Government has amended this to ‘maliciously’.
A person committing this offence is liable of not exceeding RM500,000.00 or imprisonment of a term not more than 6 years. The penalties are disproportionately high, especially when compared to similar legislations in our statute books.
Supporters of the bill argue that it would be the Court that decides whether something is ‘fake news’ or not. Although it is true that ultimately an accused person will have his day in Court, the bill also allows the police to arrest a person without warrant for investigations. To most people, a night in the police lockup is enough to create fear.
Indeed, the probability is that the bill will create a culture of fear; a chilling effect on society. While we may hope that the implementation of the bill will be transparent and fair, the wide definition given to ‘fake news’ and the imprecise nature of some of the provisions may lead to selective and arbitration implementation and abuse.
We could learn from our neighbours down south. The Singapore Parliament had set up a Parliamentary Select Committee on ‘Deliberate Online Falsehoods - Causes, Consequences and Countermeasures' to obtain feedback through public hearings on ‘online falsehoods’.
Although many civil society groups in Singapore have criticised the Select Committee a farce, at the very least there is a consultative process through public hearings on the matter before a bill is tabled to be passed.
Instead of rushing this bill through Parliament, the Government should withdraw the bill. More feedback is required in order to ascertain the need and desirability of such a legislation. A law that has such wide-ranging repercussions cannot be passed in haste.