The likening of the fight against COVID-19 to a war should neither be a rationale for war-time measures, nor a free hand to muzzle the media and impinge on individual free speech. With new normals being expected, these normals must include a free media coupled with better protected free speech rights. 

False information and rumours thrive on fear and uncertainty, and the COVID-19 pandemic offers plenty of both. Among others, these false information and rumours have pertained to the source of COVID-19, how it spreads, how to treat it, as well as the plethora of conspiracy theories around it.

Hinting at the extent of the problem in Malaysia is that as of 12 April 2020, the Government-linked fact-checking website has debunked and clarified 279 pieces of false information and rumours related to COVID-19. 

The importance of a free and independent media

Amidst this deluge of false information and rumours, the role and responsibility of the media to disseminate authoritative and credible information in a timely manner cannot be understated. 

Considering this, it is remiss that the National Security Council had instructed the Royal Malaysian Police and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission to take “stern action” against online media that misreports news. 

While the government’s response could be explained by the alleged instances of misreporting, as the Centre for Independent Journalism noted in its press statement, “these are sporadic, and often the error is corrected by the media outlet or through facts and clarification as shared by the public official”.

If that much is true, then there is the question of whether the instruction to take stern action against the media is disproportionate. 

Regardless, this call for action to be taken against the media is unsettling as direct, or even indirect threats or pressure by the government could lead to self-censorship in newsrooms, affecting the media’s capability to act as a watchdog for public interest.

In the same vein, as the media is often the rights bearer and bellwether for free speech, any restrictions on media freedom often precede the erosion of other fundamental rights. Relatedly, the government’s treatment of the media tends to portray its actual understanding and appreciation of wider free speech rights.

That said, the decision to take stern action is counterproductive in ensuring the media holds itself to higher standards. To meet that goal, and reduce incidents of misreporting, the formalisation of an independent Media Council is pivotal. 

As an industry regulator, an independent Media Council ought to be mandated to determine professional standards for its members, with sanctions to reprimand members who fail to meet these standards. 

By reducing government overreach into the media industry, the latter will be more resilient towards the ebbs and flows of political machinations and interference. This will only be a positive for those who subscribe to democratic and human rights norms. 

Responding to fake news

Meanwhile, in an attempt to educate the public on the impacts of fake news, CyberSecurity Malaysia had created an infographic to categorise the various types of fake news and its purported impacts. Possibly done with good intentions, this has led to multiple problems. 

Firstly, CyberSecurity Malaysia’s reliance on the term ‘fake news’ obfuscates the already incredibly vague, and politically-charged term. This is a disservice to the growing literature that more accurately categorises the typology of falsehoods, such as those published by First Draft

With the government taking action against those who spread fake news, these differences are not mere semantics. 

Secondly, it is worrying that “instilling hatred towards the government and leaders” was listed among the six categories of fake news in the infographic. Would this mean that legitimate criticism or dissent against the government –which theoretically could instil hatred– then be considered fake news, and potentially be punishable by the law? 

The above is absurd and contrary to the functioning of a healthy democracy where those holding public office ought to be more open to criticism and dissent than the ordinary person. 

On that note, and fully acknowledging the legitimate need for regulation, a new legislation that is specifically applicable to COVID-19 false information ought to be introduced as argued in my policy paper titled “Malaysia’s Infodemic and Policy Response”.

Moving forward under Perikatan Nasional

It is worth remembering that Malaysia’s improvement in its media freedom and human rights scores in 2019 is not the end all, be all, and the risk of these hard won freedoms backsliding can never be ruled out. 

It needs to be underscored that the relatively freer environment for the media and speech was a result of administrative decisions by Pakatan Harapan, rather than a wholesale repeal or amendment of the plethora of legislations that could curtail media freedom and free speech.

With the exception of the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 which was repealed in December 2019, these remaining legislations, among others, are the Sedition Act 1948, Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, and the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998. 

With scientists now warning that the COVID-19 pandemic would lead to new normals, these normals must include a free media coupled with better protected free speech rights. 

While some have likened the fight against COVID-19 to a war, this should be taken as a message to instil urgency to act, rather than a rationale for war-time measures. It must be emphasised that what is essentially a public health crisis does not, and should not grant the government a free hand to either muzzle the media, or impinge on individual free speech. 

To close, in 2015, I had the opportunity to meet Tan Sri Muhyddin Yassin at his private residence some time after his sacking as Deputy Prime Minister. At this closed-door meeting (one of the many he had, I am sure), I had asked Tan Sri Muhyiddin for his opinions on free speech, relevant then as he was sacked from his Cabinet position for voicing out criticisms relating to 1MDB. 

While lapsed time has taken the answer given by Tan Sri Muhyiddin to me back then, perhaps what matters more is his answer as Prime Minister today. 

This article was first published in Malaysiakini on 13 April 2020.

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