Thursday, December 2, 2021

The need for stiffer penalties over fake news

Purveyors of fake news need to be taught a lesson, and those who have no intention of spreading it or do not wish to see others fall victim to it have no reason to fear.

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In March 2020, news of the “arrest” of ex-finance minister Lim Guan Eng’s son in Singapore created waves. A national Chinese daily, picking up on chatter in cyberspace, first reported that the younger Lim was detained for bringing RM2 million into Singapore without due process. In no time, the news went viral as other major news establishments amplified the “development”.

Hours later, IGP Abdul Hamid Bador refuted the claim. No one was arrested in Singapore for bringing huge amounts of cash into the republic, least of all the younger Lim. In other words, it was all fake news.

But as far as the Lims were concerned, the damage had been done. With Malaysians whipped into a frenzy, the reputational damage as well as the political ramifications were felt long after the end of the news cycle concerning the “misdeed” that did not take place at all.

Worldwide, as information becomes more easily accessible, misinformation has become a global problem. Countries the world over are coming up with novel ways to stem this scourge.

In Malaysia, under the Fake News Emergency Ordinance, those who create or spread fake news face a fine of up to RM100,000, a jail term of up to three years or both from March 12. The opposition has kicked up a fuss over the law, saying that it tramples on free speech.

Don’t critics know the difference between “free speech” and “responsible speech”? The former is when all and sundry can throw mud at each other, like the “news” of Lim Guan Eng’s son being detained in Singapore. The latter is to articulate in a manner where we do not abuse others’ reputation or cause injury.

Why make an issue of the penalties for spreading fake news if one has no desire to do it and sincerely believes in responsible speech? According to a recent piece in The Economist, between March and October last year, 17 countries passed new laws against “online misinformation” or “fake information”. Malaysia is not alone.

Fake news has become a problem, and not just in Malaysia. Donald Trump was elected US president by whipping up sentiments using fake news and half-truths such as how his rival Hillary Clinton’s Democratic party officials were involved in a child sex ring. Dubbed “Pizzagate”, the claim has been discredited. Trump and his supporters continue to cause much damage by spreading fake news as do many leaders in deveoped nations.

In Malaysia now, anti-vaxxers are spreading false news about how the Covid-19 vaccines contain non-halal substances or are part of a Jewish conspiracy to brainwash. If left unchecked, the claim will continue to grip tight, defeating our aim of getting at least 70% of our population vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, and scuttling our economic recovery plan.

This is no different from how news about Lim Guan Eng’s son’s purported arrest spread. Purveyors of fake news need to be taught a lesson. And those who have no intention of spreading it or do not wish to see others fall victim to it, have no reason to fear.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.

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