John Diaz: Malaysia's 'Fake News' Act protects what it criminalizes

By On July 14, 2018

John Diaz: Malaysia's 'Fake News' Act protects what it criminalizes

KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia â€" “There is freedom of speech here,” insisted James Sarda, chief editor of the family-owned Daily Express in the state of Sabah on the northwest coast on the island of Borneo. He then paused to add, “But there are limitations.”

Oh, yes, those three untouchable subjects: Don’t insult the king, don’t inflame racial tensions and don’t offend religion.

In other words, Malaysia has not enjoyed a free press by any reasonable definition in its six decades of independence. Yet there is cause for optimism that the environment might be about to change.

The stunning May 9 election that returned Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to power, with the 92-year-old having switched to the opposition party, was propelled by t he corruption and incompetence of the authoritarian leader Najib Razak, who has since been arrested and charged with criminal breach of trust and abuse of power.

Mahathir, who had no tolerance for dissent during his reign as prime minister from 1981 to 2003, claims to have dramatically changed his ways â€" and his early cabinet appointments suggest a sincerity about running a more open and inclusive administration. One of his promises has been to repeal the Fake News Act, the world’s first law designed to criminalize false reporting. Rushed through Parliament in just two hours a month before the election, the law carries punishment of up to six years in jail and fines of up to $125,000 (in U.S. dollars) for disseminating fake news â€" a law so loosely drawn that critics contend it could include artists and stand-up comedians.

There was no doubt about its ulterior intent: to further chill criticism of gov ernment in a nation that already had a thick docket of deterrents on the books. Perhaps the most insidious is Malaysia’s Official Secrets Act of 1972, which gives those in power wide latitude to decide which government records â€" including drafts of pending legislation â€" should be available to the public.

Moreover, the Sedition Act makes it illegal to arouse “hatred, contempt or to excite disaffection” against the administration of the federal or state government.

Against this backdrop, Sarda considers himself fortunate that his privately owned Daily Express, unlike state-subsidized counterparts, has the freedom to even write about the opposition. Yet even an independent newspaper is subject to state licensing.

“We feel like we are printing with our hands behind our back,” he told an international group of visiting journalis ts during a recent meeting. He acknowledged that “we exercise a lot of self-censorship. We do.”

Mahathir’s election is one source of hope. But the other driving factor is one that, at least for now, would be beyond the control of any prime minister: the internet generally, and social media specifically.

“If the press doesn’t say it, ordinary people will,” said Fahmi Fadzil, a member of the Parliament who maintained that repeal of the Fake News Act and other media-suppression laws is “very important” in the solidification of genuine democracy in what he and others call the “New Malaysia.”

One of the bright spots in Malaysia journalism is a website in Kuala Lumpur named Malaysiakini, founded in 1999 to take advantage of Mahathir’s decision not to censor the Internet. It is funded by paid subscribers, which frees it of the pressures not only from go vernment, but those that might come from advertisers or shareholders.

“You cannot be independent if you’re not financially independent,” explained Steven Gan, a co-founder and now editor in chief of Malaysiakini.

It is independent, but hardly free of government harassment.

“We have police coming here all the time,” said Gan, noting that he was arrested and could face up to a year in jail for violating the Communications and Multimedia Act of 1998. The offense? Malaysiakini uploaded a video of a news conference â€" yes, a politician’s news conference! â€" criticizing the attorney general for initially clearing then-prime minister Najib, who is suspected of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars, if not far more, in public funds.

Malaysiakini’s site also was blocked, with evidence of g overnment complicity, for two hours on election night.

By Gan’s count, Malaysia has 35 laws that either directly or indirectly intrude on press freedom.

You can add turtle eggs to royalty, religion and race on the list of sensitive subjects. Sarda’s Daily Express is being sued by a regional development minister for publishing a story in 2016 with photos (“from one of our informers”) that showed a pile of protected turtle eggs on a lazy Susan at his table at an official dinner in Kota Kinabalu. The minister denied eating any of the eggs â€" citing his high cholesterol â€" though one appears on his plate.

Sarda is confident of winning the defamation case on the merits, with truth as his defense, but the process is distracting and expensive for a family-owned newspaper.

Such is the state of press freedom that journalists and reformers â€" including the prime minister whom many Malaysians are hopefully calling “Mahatir 2.0” â€" are determined to change.

Sarda’s wish list includes not only repeal of the Fake News Act and Official Secrets Act, but establishment of a U.S.-style Freedom of Information Act “so we can play our role as watchdog and Fourth Estate.”

For all the frustrations, for all the police raids, for all the dark whispers from officials to “be careful” or “don’t report that” â€" journalists here acknowledge that they are better off than many of their counterparts in Southeast Asia.

“They get killed, they disappear, they get kidnapped, they get tortured,” said Gan. “We don’t get killed here.”

They just get silenced for too long in too many ways. And all the while, a terminally co rrupt Najib regime stole perhaps billions of dollars from the Malaysian people with the assist of laws that allowed it to define state secrets and otherwise avoid critical scrutiny.

Dr. Mahathir: Tear down those laws.

John Diaz is The Chronicle’s editorial page editor. Email: jdiaz@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @JohnDiazChron He reported from Malaysia along with counterparts from seven other countries as part of a fellowship sponsored by the nonprofit East-West Center.

Source: Google News Malaysia | Netizen 24 Malaysia

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