Anti-Fake News Act has delivered the ‘below the belt’ blow, both to Malaysians in general and conscientious journalists back home in particular

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Walking the talk seems a tough nut to crack for most politicians, including the nation’s caretaker prime minister Najib Razak.

A case in point is the premier’s recent call that politicians refrain from “hitting below the belt” via fake news in the 14th general election by acting like “gentlemen”.

“If we want to compete, compete as a gentleman, compete like a man, don’t compete below the belt.

“That is what I hope. Because we want to develop a mature democracy. We can criticise the government, but don’t spread fake news,” Najib had said at the launch of the inaugural National Journalists’ Day on Wednesday.

Ironically, Wednesday was also the day when the much objected Anti-Fake News Bill was finally gazetted, bringing the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 into immediate effect.

This latest superfluous law penalises the creation or distribution of fake news with a maximum fine of RM500,000 or a maximum six-year jail term, or both.

It was indeed an antithesis that the caretaker prime minister alluded to the “below the belt” scenario when in fact it was his administration’s cavalier attitude vis-a-vis the Anti-Fake News Act which had delivered the “below the belt” blow, both to Malaysians in general and conscientious journalists back home in particular.

That the Najib-led government had at lightning speed conceived the Anti-Fake News Bill, that too giving no clarity to the term “fake”, alarmed just about everyone.

Also, the fact that there are already adequate legal remedies in place to gag the press or deal with misreporting was hardly considered.

That the Najib administration has remained reticent in defining “fake news”, leaving it open to interpretation, is both baffling and troubling.

This was unlike the move by the Indian government which had earlier issued a circular with new guidelines for regulating fake news resulting in journalists who “created” or “propagated” fake news losing their accreditation.

The circular had stated that if the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi received so much as one complaint, a journalist could be suspended for 15 days.

Stumbling block to press freedom

Like Malaysia, the fake news agenda with the Modi administration too was lost in translation as no definition of fake was made, resulting in the circular being withdrawn.

India has decided to let its journalists do what they know best – report the facts. Malaysia on the other hand seems unsettling with the plethora of information that continues to be revealed on scandalous issues like the state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

Still, countries like the Philippines last year amended libel laws to heighten punishment for the publishing of false news.

While Singapore in January had set up a select committee to hold hearings on “deliberate online falsehoods,” prompted by concern from its law minister last year over the possible spread of dissension in its multicultural community as one reason to consider regulation.

With Malaysia’s Anti-Fake News Act yet another stumbling block to press freedom, how and why should journalists look forward to a National Journalists’ Day which Najib has decided to celebrate on May 29 each year?

Malaysia was ranked 144th out of 180 countries in the global Press Freedom Ranking last year by Reporters Without Borders.

At the inaugural National Journalists’ Day launch too, Najib claimed credit for facilitating freedom of speech by repealing the draconian Internal Security Act and by introducing the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012.

The ISA’s demise was hardly a reason to rejoice as soon after Najib went back on his word to abolish the Sedition Act, instead going on to strengthen it by way of blocking online media deemed to be seditious.

By the way, there are the Printing Presses and Publications Act and the Official Secrets Act which remain steadfast in the way of freedom of the press.

At the end of the day, there really is no reason for journalists to celebrate – exposing the truth has now with the existence of the Anti-Fake News Act become all the more perilous.

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