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Defining fake news

  • In the absence of explicit and non-ambiguous definitions of fake news, the Anti-Fake News Bill could be abused by the authorities to suppress freedom of press and expression. Photo courtesy: AFP

Sin Chew Daily

The government tabled the Anti-Fake News Bill 2018 in Dewan Rakyat on Monday for first reading so that the Bill could be passed in the Parliament before the current parliamentary session ends.

The government finds it a need to legislate a new law to battle the omnipresent fake news that has not only misguided the public but has also posed severe risks to the country's economic development as well as social security.

It is understandable that such a bill is necessary in order to maintain social order and effectively monitor the flow of information, especially through social media sites. Similar laws have been in place in many countries in this world.

If we were to study the Bill, we should discover that much of the content is similar to what is being practiced in many other countries, showing indeed that there is common understanding among nations in meting out punishments against individuals or organizations disseminating fake news.

However, the key lies with how fake news should be defined. The legal fraternity is of the view that the definition of fake news as provided in the Bill has been excessively broad and ambiguous, and is contrary to the basis of explicit and non-ambiguous definitions required under criminal laws.

In the Bill, fake news is defined as news that includes any content which is wholly or partly false without clearer definitions of the malicious falsehood involved. As such, the Anti-Fake News Bill could be abused by the authorities to suppress freedom of press and expression.

Local media players are of the opinion that the Bill could have far-reaching implications for the media industry. The bill proposes heavy penalties on news sources, publishers and funders, and that the authorities can unilaterally force media organizations to remove articles via ex-parte applications. This could constitute an act of press suppression.

As the Fourth Estate, the press must be granted complete freedom in scrutinizing and compiling the information in discharging its duty as an effective public authority watchdog. Such an obligation will be invalidated if it is put in the hands of any intervening forces.

And since the Bill includes also the social media, given the ubiquitous availability of Internet and smartphones, members of the public could find themselves criminalized for disseminating fake news without they knowing it.

From the legal point of view, the criminal culpability of an individual should be established upon the evidence of his or her criminal intention. Do the authorities have sufficient resources to monitor and filter the enormous flow of information?

The public feel that the authenticity of a piece of news should not be ascertained by government institutions but the court, which coincides with the requirements for proper legal proceedings. However, the Bill also has a provisional measure to allow the authorities to rein in the dissemination of misinformation during the stages of investigation and prosecution. It is therefore imperative that the relevant authorities act prudently so as not to constitute abuse of power.

Normally it will take some time and procedures from the drafting of a bill to its tabling and eventual adoption in the Parliament. The hasty tabling and adoption of the Anti-Fake News Bill 2018 invariably arouses public suspicion as to the actual intent of the government.

Indeed such a bill is a necessity, but a more appropriate and professional way of doing it is to first consult the legal industry, the press and even operators of social media sites, followed by public consultation, instead of forcing it through within such a tight time frame.

 

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