By Rush Bidun*
Badan Perhubungan Negara (BPN) has recently lived up to its title of being the coalition of Kelab UMNOs by sharing a statement on their social media account by Datuk Seri Panglima Dr Salleh Said Keruak, the Minister of Communications and Multimedia, who defended the Anti-Fake News (AFN) Bill recently passed in Parliament. This action overlooks the nuanced implications of this Bill and the overbearingly clumsy way it was rushed through Parliament. I shall explain why.
Problems with the AFN Bill
The Datuk Seri claims that the law doesn’t provide carte blanche power to the government to control what is defined as ‘fake news’ but that this is left up to the independent judiciary. Allegations against the independence of our judiciary aside, this is highly myopic due to the broadness of the definition of fake news within the Bill itself. According to Article 2 of the Bill itself, “fake news includes any news, information, data and reports, which is or are wholly or partly false, whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas.”
This is extremely broad – literally anything can be defined as fake news, from satire to op-eds. The implication of this is that legal recourse would be open to abuse by any party seeking to obtain dominion over those who think differently. More importantly, when we focus on the possibility of governmental abuse, any form of dissent can be taken to be defined as fake news and litigation pursued.
Yes, courts may deliberate over this definition and decide against overly heavy-handed interpretations but even having the possibility of legal action being taken on an individual or organisation would greatly reduce the likelihood of free speech flourishing, especially when we take into consideration banter, satire and other forms of humour. Not only this, the freedom of the press in terms of investigative journalism might also be affected. Analysts and commentators can be silenced for having opinions unpopular to the powers that be.
One may say that so long as these are based on facts, one doesn’t have to fear the Bill. But what kind of words can be used that are incapable of suggesting words or ideas other than that which are intended? If, let’s say, one was to criticise the microeconomic fragility of our nation, is describing our economy as ‘immature’ or ‘not all-encompassing’ allowed? Can legal action be threatened by the government against an economist who suggests this, alleging that the words used falsely suggest the economic health of our country is dire? How much would this cost the economist, monetarily and in terms of physical and mental health? More importantly, would said economist then want to continue his work? Would anyone else, for that matter?
Why heavy-handed laws don’t work
A remnant of authoritarian regimes, heavy-handed laws may even be counter-productive. In the case of fake news in today’s world of borderless communication, draconian laws might exacerbate the problem by moving it underground to more secure servers or even the deep web.
An analogy may be drawn with the cigarette industry, where high taxes intended to discourage smoking have driven people to more dangerous illicit varieties. Do we really want this to happen, where we can’t see what is being talked about, shared and believed by a large section of society? It has been a trend of Malaysians to treat the symptoms rather than the core problem. In this sense, fake news itself is not the problem, a lack of intellectualism is. People who believe in fake news generally are not used to researching its veracity, because that is the kind of society we live in – where those who hold power administer what to believe rather than encourage the general populace to make up their own mind by considering the facts at hand. The AFN legislation treats symptoms rather than causes, and may be counterproductive.
This also causes the perception of the administrator of facts to be seen as a powerful oppressor, especially if there are laws to strengthen their hold over society. This emboldens those who do not trust them in the first place to disengage entirely, forming colonies of sceptics that disseminate alternative facts of their own. Let’s face it, we have all lived in fear of governmental repercussions for a long time. Yet, we share conspiracy theories all the time, especially when it comes to purported racial superiority and religious agendas. Thought-control is not just a dangerous concept but an ultimately unsuccessful one.
The very notion of governmental control expressed in vague provisions will only antagonise the very members of society it seeks to protect. What we need is an organic understanding of society with bottom-up origins. This will only exist through the setting-up of a properly open and free environment such that an open marketplace of ideas can exist from which society arranges itself in the most amicable manner.
Double standards in student politics?
What is really frustrating is the selective memory involved with societies such as BPN. Whenever any society takes any step that is vaguely political, a million cautions swarm those involved, often speaking against partisanship, yet BPN and the associated Kelab UMNOs ooze partisanship. There is direct contact with UMNO, yet it is said that these organisations are independent. The conflict of interest cannot be more apparent. If we are being real about this, it is unsurprising that these so-called independent student societies express their support for bills supported by UMNO, even if it is painfully obvious that these bills are not that well thought out. In-and-of-itself this is not a problem. Everyone has an agenda they are pushing based on their beliefs and their desires, silencing these are unwise. All I really want is some honesty. We know you’re not independent, stop pretending that you are.
But this is the reality of politics in Malaysia. Closed-door diplomacy rules, shady dealings and discussions in quiet corners move and shape the decisions made by so many of those who hold office. It is truly suffocating. Even those societies that have no formal ties with certain bodies that are supposed to be kept at arm’s length to eliminate conflicts of interest often have to deal with them behind closed doors under the fear caused by subtle threats. Whatever happened to accountability and transparency? One may be under the notion that things can happen more efficiently through this closed-door method but with every positive comes a compromise. Are we willing to let that compromise be that of the very fundamentals of student activism – critical thinking and independence? And if we are, does it bode well to continue selling what is essentially a lie to assert that one is independent when it is not completely true?
The future of student activism
Forget what it is like back home, forget what other people have done with their organisations, we should carve a system for ourselves with our values in mind.
Look, I am not here to antagonise BPN. One of the friends I hold in high regard once held a very high position in a Kelab UMNO, I can understand compromises and even political motives, as much as I find the notion personally abhorrent. In the end, we are all students, so we are all natural allies. We not being a part of the Legislative, Judiciary and Executive sectors of public service or even the private sector are supposed to be independent of all these to be critical of society around us. This is especially true when it comes to the governance of us as students.
Independent organisation by us for us should be paramount. The most important aspect in this is free speech and the creation of an intellectual, open environment. Forget what it is like back home, forget what other people have done with their organisations, we should carve a system for ourselves with our values in mind. When those of other interests come knocking, let them in professionally and transparently. Represent students, please. And if you don’t, at least be honest about it.
*The author of this article has asked to remain anonymous through use of an alias for personal reasons.
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