KUALA LUMPUR ，Mar 15– Veterans in the media industry have poured scorn on the government’s move to curtail press freedom following the promulgation of an ordinance on fake news.
They described the move as a despicable tactic to weaken the media and suppress journalists, while voicing concern that the new law can be misused by those in power to suit their needs.
Speaking to The Vibes yesterday, award-winning senior newsman Frankie D’Cruz said it is worrying that the media profession is being stomped on.
He said in the span of 12 months, Perikatan Nasional has outdone the previous Barisan Nasional government in silencing the media and undermining democracy.
“A free press is an important part of any democracy because it keeps voters privy to what is really going on and prevents politicians from getting re-elected based on lies and falsehoods.
“While the BN government had their own arsenal of methods and tools to intimidate and silence the media, the PN administration has taken it to Olympian proportions to destroy the fibres of democracy and create unprecedented tension between the free press and executive.”
The Emergency (Essential Powers) (No. 2) Ordinance 2021, which came into effect on March 12, is aimed at combatting fake news relating to Covid-19 and the emergency proclamation, essentially giving the government sweeping powers.
Under the new law, those who spread fake news regarding said matters will face action, with the courts being granted powers to order the removal of such publications.
It empowers law enforcement to arrest, enforce, investigate, inspect and have access to computerised data, with investigations on seizable offences now not requiring a warrant.
Those found guilty face a fine of not more than RM100,000 or a jail term not exceeding three years, while for continuing offences, there will be a further fine not exceeding RM1,000 for each day that the offence continues after conviction.
Despite this, D’Cruz reminded fellow journalists to remain steadfast in bearing witness and holding those in power to account.
“Any media that compromises on these virtues will foolishly be handing the government the power to decide what information is true and what is false.
“That is a dangerously wrong path that threatens the integrity of democracy and fourth estate.”
Fellow newsman and former newspaper editor Gobind Rudra said the ordinance on fake news as it is – while narrow in scope by focusing solely on Covid-19 and the emergency – is still very loose.
“Any restriction on free speech, when it is very loose, can be misused. And that is exactly the fear among most press members.”
He said the move to promulgate the ordinance is overboard, unless the authorities can show, with valid ground, its concern of such fake news.
He cited graphic artist Fahmi Reza’s satirical cartoons as an example of how the vagueness in the definition of fake news could see individuals wrongly prosecuted.
“How do you even define what causes public alarm on the issue of Covid-19 and the emergency. Can you say what Fahmi does is causing alarm? Where do you draw the line?
“This will raise a lot of questions among the editors. Opinions are one thing, creating alarm is a totally different thing.”
National Press Club president and Petra News executive director Datuk Ahirudin Attan described the ordinance as a “gag order”.
“What we actually need is a policy on fake news as a whole, not fake news on Covid-19 or football… it shouldn’t be something so specific,” he was quoted as saying to news site Twentytwo13.
“It’s lazy and political. We’ve spoken about fake news many times in the past, but this new law seems to be narrow and self-serving. It doesn’t serve the purpose of educating us as a nation.
“Also, who is going to decide what is fake and what isn’t? Basically, one can be hauled up on the pretext of spreading ‘fake news’.
“All of us in the media, online, newspapers, we are all against fake news. But this (new law) is not dealing with fake news.”
In a press conference last Friday, Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah said the new ordinance is not to curtail media freedom or any party from criticising the government, but merely to tackle the issue of fake news. – The Vibes