KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The war against fake news is set to have a new weapon. And like all weapons, its effectiveness depends very much on when and how it is wielded.
The Star hopes that the proposed anti-fake news law, if passed by Parliament and subsequently gazetted, will be used judiciously and precisely.
The spread of false and defamatory information, aided by the speed and reach of social media and the Internet, is a problem that can no longer be ignored. It ruins reputations and relations, confuses and fools people, and leads to the waste of time, money and effort.
There is no sign that it will go away on its own, and this has compelled authorities all over the world to consider ways to deter people from causing damage by presenting lies as facts.
The Star too believes that there ought to be measures to curb fake news. As a traditional media organisation, we fully understand our role and responsibilities, and we know how damaging false information can be. We spend plenty of time verifying and checking our news, unlike most social media platforms.
The people need to be protected against the deliberate circulation of harmful lies, in the same way that the government outlaws fraudulent investment schemes, punishes reckless drivers and controls gun ownership in Malaysia. But the question is, what is the best way to address the fake news problem?
The Malaysian Government has decided that the country needs a law that deals with fake news "by providing for certain offences and measures to curb the dissemination of fake news and to provide for related matters".
The Anti-Fake News Bill tabled in Dewan Rakyat on Monday has only 15 pages but it packs a wallop because of its broad definitions of fake news and the publication of fake news.
It offers eight illustrations of fake news offences, and these include blog articles, a caricature in an advertisement, a statement in a social media account, a bogus government agency website, a speech during a public forum, and a press conference.
An offence can result in a fine of up to RM500,000 (S$169,484) or a jail term of up to 10 years, or both. That should make most people think twice about spreading lies knowingly. And in the Bill, the Government expresses hope that with the proposed Act, "the public will be more responsible and cautious in sharing news and information".
When a weapon is expertly designed and used, it does its job well. Will the proposed Act prove to be such a thing?
The width of the proposed law and its definition of fake news has raised concerns among lawyers and media practitioners. They worry that there may be far-reaching implications to every citizen's right to freedom of speech and expression as enshrined in the Federal Constitution.
It has long been argued that the country's existing laws that apply to the media are already restrictive. The proposed Act, say critics, will only tighten press freedom and leave little room for the level of free expression that one expects in a progressive society. This is worth bearing in mind when enforcing the new law.
Everybody should be happy if the proposed Act reduces the spread of fake news. But there should be constant vigilance against unintended consequences. There is no perfect weapon; the Government must be ready to improve the Act whenever shortcomings surface.
The Star is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.