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Malaysian civil society groups have expressed concerns over the statement of the National Security Council directing the police and the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia (KKMM) to take ‘stern action’ against online news websites that allegedly misreport government statements on COVID-19. Several media groups also criticized the release of an infographics detailing various types of ‘fake news’ which includes the posting of criticism against authorities.
On April 11, 2020, Senior Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced that the KKMM and police have been ordered to take ‘stern action’ against news portals which publish news which are ‘confusing and inaccurate.’ He explained that this is necessary to provide the public with accurate information about COVID-19.
Several civil society groups criticized the order and warned that it directly undermines free speech:
A disproportionate response by directing punitive actions against media institutions can be counter-productive as it could shut down the flow of information and related public discourse that is crucial in dealing with public health issues.
They also questioned why online news websites were singled out by the minister. They added that it is dangerous to allow the government to decide which statement has been ‘misquoted’ or ‘misreported’ by the media.
Governments cannot be the sole arbiters of truth by having the power to arbitrarily decide what information can and cannot be in the public domain and what has been “misquoted” or “misreported”.
Article 19 chapter in Malaysia urged authorities to protect the work of media while the country is battling the COVID-19 pandemic:
The gov will lose their credibility when they start attacking media& journalists.The gov must make efforts to protect the work of journalists. Journalists&media are front liners that work hard to provide info to the public and their work must be protected instead of undermined.
— ARTICLE 19 Malaysia (@Article19Msia) April 12, 2020
‘Fake news’ infographics
On April 10, Malaysia's Information Department released an infographics informing the public about various types of ‘fake news’. The following types of content are considered ‘fake news’ (translation by the Centre for Independent Journalism or CIJ):
[content that] brings down the dignity and image of an individual, the reputation of an organisation and the country; instills hate towards the ruling government and leaders; relates to the infrastructure of critical information about the country; involves teachings of extremist beliefs; touches on the sensitivity of religion and race; and contains elements of pornography, gambling and lies.
CIJ said the list released by the Information Department could lead to a crackdown on free speech:
The dangers of generalising and listing the alleged ‘types’ of ‘fake news’ alludes to tactical attempts by the government at cracking down legitimate speech aimed at crushing dissent or differences of opinion or disproportionately restricting various forms of expression.
Aliran, a human rights group, said it reflects the insecurity of the government:
We take issue especially with the government’s attempt to punish those whose criticisms are deemed to have caused ‘distrust in the ruling government’.
Resorting to censorship, especially in its extreme form, in a time of crisis reflects the insecurity of the government of the day.
Fahmi Fadzil, a Member of Parliament, has some questions for the department. He wrote on Facebook:
Is the government saying we can no longer comment or be enraged when a minister says warm water can help kill the Covid-19 virus?
Or if when there are graphics released by the government that invites wives to address their husbands while mimicking the voice of Doraemon?
When it’s right, it’s right. When it’s wrong, it needs to be corrected.
The MP is referring to recent news reports involving a minister who suggested the drinking of warm water to kill the novel coronavirus, and a government information material advising housewives to use the voice of the Doraemon cartoon to prevent domestic abuse.
The CIJ has drafted a comprehensive program on how to uphold freedom of expression during the COVD-19 pandemic. Here is CIJ’s recommendation on how to combat disinformation:
6. “Fake news” – education over prosecution. Dissenting voices must be heard; promote democracy.
Have efficient/broad channels of information from the govt and media for the public to verify info and report misinformation
Repeal/amend laws that arbitrarily stifle speech!
— CIJ Malaysia (@CIJ_Malaysia) April 9, 2020