C4 executive director Cynthia Gabriel said it was disturbing to note that while the world was moving towards open governance and information sharing in the digital sphere, Malaysia was sliding deeper into authoritarianism.
According to the bill tabled in Parliament, the proposed law seeks to safeguard the public against fake news. However, critics see it as another weapon in the hands of the government to silence dissent, especially with the general election approaching.
Saying the nation remained “rife with misinformation due to a lack of information”, Cynthia added that transparency was the best arbiter of fake news.
She said information available to the public was the most effective form of check and balance against public malfeasance, and would enable people to separate fake from real news.
She also called on the government to “clear the air between truth and falsehoods through proactively publishing data, conforming to open data principles and actively guaranteeing freedom of information”.
She said the proposed anti-fake news law would only strengthen approaches that had already weighed heavily on the country’s “repressive justice system”, citing the Official Secrets Act and the Printing Presses Act as examples.
Asking if this was just another law to cover up corruption scandals, Cynthia added: “The arbitrariness of the definition of ‘fake news’ is repugnant to the rule of law, and with the bill empowering only the attorney-general to prosecute, it promotes greater impunity. It is a crushing blow for civic spaces and investigative journalism in this country.
“At the heart of this debate is a key principle of freedom of information: maximal disclosure, with a limited scope of exceptions. Information is power, and a regime in power for six decades know this only too well.”
Cynthia said information held by public bodies, institutions and organisations should by default be disclosed to the public, and that only very specific exceptions that constitute harm to security and public interest should be withheld.
She said the new law would restrict the flow of information and fuel more speculation rather than clarify the truth.
She added that the proposed law provided a disincentive to whistleblowers which would make detecting and fighting corruption more difficult. In fact, she added, it could “have the chilling effect of silencing” whistleblowers.