On April 2, the Malaysian government passed a law titled “Anti-Fake News Bill 2018.” This bill would prohibit “fake news” in all of its forms, and those convicted of publishing it would face up to six years in prison and fines of up to $130,000 USD. According to the Malaysian government, the law would help avoid the large quantities of false information that is currently being circulated as legitimate journalism in the country. “When the American president made ‘fake news’ into a buzzword, the world woke up,” said Senior Official with the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission Suhaimi Abdul Malek.
Although the Malaysian government claims to have passed this law out of concern for maintaining journalistic integrity, critics believe that the real reason is to suppress government opposition. In the past year, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has been shrouded in scandal amidst accusations that he took money from a Malaysian government fund and purchased assets for himself and his family. Given that elections for Prime Minister are to occur this year, critics of the law are concerned that Razak passed the law to control coverage about his administration prior to the elections.
Another concern surrounding the passage of this law is that the term “fake news” is not well defined. Coined by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. election, the term was mainly used to criticize news sources that were critical of Trump and his hateful policy proposals. If the term is to be used in the same vein by the Malaysian government, then it would be more difficult for journalists to publish articles that question the government out of fear that their reporting will be considered “fake news” and that they will subsequently be prosecuted. According to an article in The New York Times from April 2, Jailani Johari, Malaysia’s deputy minister for communications and multimedia, defines fake news as “ any information…that has not been verified by the government.” If the Malaysian government is making itself responsible for validating news sources meant to hold the government accountable, then the press will not have freedom of speech, which is essential for a democracy. As seen in the case of Malaysia, government intervention in the media is viewed by critics as a possible restriction on free speech and objective reporting. It should be the job of people and groups outside of the government to discern what is reliable information and what is not.
Malaysia is not the only country that has drafted legislation pertaining to the regulation of “fake news.” Similarly, countries such as India, The United Kingdom and France have begun to draft legislation which they claim is geared towards fighting the tide of “fake news” that seems to have become increasingly prevalent in our society. While the intentions of these governments may not be malicious, critics such as journalists and members of watchdog organizations find it curious that leaders are suddenly concerned about this issue, even though “fake news” has been published for ages. In an opinions piece published on wired.com, the University of East Anglia Lecturer Paul Bernal claims that “The whole idea of fake news has been around pretty much forever… it goes back to at least the 15th century.” Since “fake news” has existed for centuries, why is it now necessary for governments to actively intervene?
The most obvious answer is the emergence of the Trump era’s war on facts. The 2016 U.S. presidential election is infamous because of the large amounts of “fake news” that were shared on social media outlets, such as Facebook. Given that many believe “fake news” was a significant factor in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, it is reasonable for people to want some type of regulation of this information. However, government intervention would simply restrict the free speech of the media, especially in countries that already have shoddy records with press free speech to begin with.
Instead of governments passing legislation to regulate “fake news,” determining the accuracy of information should be the responsibility of media outlets, third party watchdogs and the general public. One of the best ways to regulate the flow of correct information would be for watch dogs, such as Politifact or Newswatch, to partner with news outlets and social media companies — where many people get their news — to distinguish between trusted and not trusted media outlets.
Another way for “fake news” to be combatted is by readers themselves. The media exists to keep people informed on current events, and readers should make an effort to fact check what they read. Whether this is through reading multiple publications to obtain news or being a frequent visitor to fact checking sites, readers have the ability to discern for themselves what is reliable news. If the government is telling the readers of the news what is to be considered “fake,” what would ensue would be a sort of “groupthink” that the government can use to control what is made public and what is kept secret. This approach could then open the doors for government officials to censure unfavorable press and could lead to more assaults on free speech.
To be sure, there is a lot of false information that is published, and with the rise of social media, it has become far easier for “fake news” to spread. Yet, it is the price that we should be willing to pay for the right to free speech. The law in Malaysia capitalizes on the anxieties of the people in light of a traumatic U.S. election, but it does not address what is truly best for its people. This law uses fear as an excuse to regulate free speech by deeming whatever the government doesn’t like “fake news.” In doing so, it takes away the power of the people and the media to discern fake news from real news and makes it more dangerous for a democratic system to thrive.