Politics and Policy: The fight against fake news must continue

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 3, 2020 - February 09, 2020.
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WEEKS and months after the May 13, 1969, tragedy, which involved racial riots in major cities and towns, the nation faced the problem of overcoming rumour-mongering, which threatened to plunge Malaysia into a chaotic uncertainty.

The fragile government was fighting a new enemy in “khabar angin”,  Malay for rumours or, in today’s parlance, fake news. There were all sorts of rumours, including that there were more fights supposedly happening here, there and everywhere. Unlike today’s fake news, which is spread through social media platforms, khabar angin post-May 13 was by word of mouth, mostly by people who they had information from “a friend of a friend who got it from another friend”.

But it did enough — for it could still spread like wildfire — to cause concern as many people believed the press was blacking out the “bad news” on the instructions of the authorities. It was tough to bring normalcy back to the country, especially in Kuala Lumpur, as the public continued to listen to rumours. So, the government of the day embarked on a nationwide “jangan dengar khabar angin”, or “don’t listen to rumours”, campaign. These messages were consistently heard over TV and radio, and published in the newspapers. There were posters everywhere reminding Malaysians, “Don’t listen to rumours”.

As a 13-year-old living in the Kuala Lumpur Malay enclave of Kampung Baru (where the riots started), many rumours were circulating and one never knew who started them. The elders would blame it on “bad elements”, including the communists, who did not want to see peace in the country.

Today, we have fake news, spread quickly by the minute via social media. Who creates the stories is a big question to many. Why they were created or who is sharing them is also baffling. I just do not understand what satisfaction or thrill people get by creating fake news about all sorts of things. And with today’s technology and graphics, it can be made to look real and authentic. Understandably some of the fake news, notably with regard to politics, is made with a purpose and carried out by paid cyber troopers but, on the other hand, many rumours are spread by regular individuals. I suppose there are people out there who love to frighten others and make them sad and unhappy.

And I never knew that so many people wanted to be journalists, albeit unpaid or unsalaried, judging from the number that spread or forward fake news in an instant upon receiving it, as if it is a breaking news item. They want to be quick on the keyboard without ascertaining whether what they have received is true or false.

Take the current Wuhan coronavirus outbreak. Some of the fake news is downright ridiculous, such as stories of hundreds of Chinese citizens fleeing from Wuhan to Langkawi, or a medical centre in Melaka having to be closed due to the number of people infected by the virus. There was also one about a religious school student who was infected three days after returning from performing the umrah in Makkah. Yet, sadly, many people lap it all up and help to viral these tales.

This is a disservice to the men and women on the frontline, who are putting themselves at risk to fight the outbreak and who are doing a good job thus far. The Global Health Security Index survey ranks Malaysia third in Asia in terms of overall readiness to face an outbreak of disease.

Of course, there is the political element to it all as well. I agree with lawyer Syahredzan Johan, who says, “Unfortunately it does appear that there are those who are deliberately spreading falsehoods for their political purposes. They want to fuel anger towards the government, creating the perception that the government is incompetent or is friendly to China by not imposing a total travel ban.”

There is truth to what Syahredzan says — never mind that he is also DAP MP Lim Kit Siang’s political secretary.

Those who supported the Barisan Nasional government’s anti-fake news Act are of the view that repealing it has backfired on the Pakatan Harapan government, which is now reeling under a barrage of fake news.

But according to Minister of Communications and Multimedia Gobind Singh Deo there is no need for new anti-fake laws as “we already have laws to deal with this matter”.

As I write this, there have been arrests under existing laws in connection with coronavirus fake news. But more action is needed to set an example and deter people from writing and sharing fake news.

The bottom line is this: Malaysians who write and spread fake news, whether it is about the Wuhan coronavirus or stories that are politically motivated or could incite racial and religious hatred, must be held accountable. They must face the full force of the law. They must not be allowed to hide behind the pretext of freedom of speech, for this freedom certainly does not include writing or spreading news that is untrue.

 

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