fake newsMARCH 16 — The Barisan Nasional (BN) government claims that legislation against so-called “fake news” will protect the people.

Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Seri Salleh Said Keruak said other countries have fake news laws too.

Germany has enforced since last January a law that requires social media sites to immediately remove posts that are considered offensive, false and illegal, failing which, they could face fines of up to €50 million (RM242 million).

However, journalists and activists have complained about infringement on free speech, citing cases like a German satirical magazine getting temporarily locked out of its Twitter account.

An author said Twitter had removed her tweet accusing German authorities of failing to investigate xenophobia.

France’s plans to introduce a law against fake news by the end of the year has also raised concern over possible restrictions on freedom of expression. French president Emmanuel Macron’s proposed law would grant judges emergency powers to remove “fake” content during election periods. It would also require more transparency for sponsored content and allow France’s media watchdog to combat any “destabilisation” attempts by foreign-financed media organisations.

France’s leading newspaper Le Monde has said the proposal, “on a subject as crucial as the freedom of the press, is by nature dangerous.”

“Fake news”, or any false claims accompanied by wrongly captioned photographs or videos, are cause for concern, of course. 

But the solution is not to impose laws against it, simply because it would take an insane amount of resources to regulate every single piece of content on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. 

As of May 2013, 4.75 billion pieces of content were shared daily on Facebook.

Not everything can be neatly categorised as “fake news” either, because there are always two sides to a story. A case in point is a woman who posted on Facebook Live, while driving, her tearful claims of being turned away from a police station when she had driven there for help after being followed by a group of men in a car at night — every woman’s worst nightmare. The police had their own version of events too.

So it is up to us to decide what really happened. Personally, as a woman, I empathise with Kogee Sinniah. Her distress was palpable.

If the BN government is serious about tackling disinformation, then it should promote a culture of openness and transparency.

The government’s anti-hoax website, sebenarnya.my, is a step in the right direction, although it should act more like a neutral arbiter and highlight both sides of the story, rather than prioritise official accounts. 

Labeling as “fake” the claim that there are 300,000 stateless Indians in Malaysia and only putting up the National Registration Department’s explanation is unfair.

Sebenarnya.my should also highlight very real concerns about the severity of the problem.

The reason why Malaysians share “fake news” without bothering to verify or to Google if it is old news, or just plain wrong, is because the BN federal government has suppressed access to information for so long.

Simple things like crime statistics in one’s neighbourhood are not publicly available. Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) doesn’t put up its budget and expenditure on its website. The mainstream media, controlled by the government and ruling political parties, avoids reporting on corruption scandals that paint BN in a bad light, only highlighting government officials’ version of events, or worse, just ignoring it altogether.

So it is no wonder that Malaysians, starved for information, readily accept stupid claims posted by ordinary citizens on social media as the gospel truth. Public institutions have failed us.

If, for example, the government wanted to fight disinformation about 1MDB, why can’t it declassify the Auditor-General’s report on 1MDB as a state secret and release it to the public? Allowing Malaysians to read the report themselves, rather than to accuse credible news organisations like New York Times of peddling “fake news”, would go much further in persuading the public.

Abolishing the Official Secrets Act, enacting a federal Freedom of Information Act, and providing data and information on government websites will go a long way in the fight against fake news.

When people realise that information is just a click away on government websites, then unverified “news” on social media appears much less reliable. Rather than lament the so-called perception of high crime rates, for example, all the police needs to do is regularly release crime statistics according to area.  

The public, of course, needs to be educated on how they can access official information. That is crucial. Changing a culture of secrecy to one of openness and transparency requires lots of public education beyond passing a law in Parliament that people are unaware of. The civil service itself must be trained to change its mindset on “protecting the government” to one of openness to the public. (I have found that this mindset applies even to Pakatan Harapan (PH) administrations).

The Selangor and Penang state governments under PH must be commended for introducing freedom of information enactments. But civil society has complained about both state administrations’ lack of public awareness campaigns about how people can make freedom of information requests. Requests for “sensitive” information like the expenditure of Selangor executive councillors, the Damansara-Shah Alam Elevated Expressway (DASH) project, and the state’s water agreement were also denied.

So both BN and PH share an apprehension towards transparency and are sometimes inclined to treating citizens like idiots.

Creating a culture of transparency also includes protecting press freedom. When the media is free to report on both sides of an issue, then people can decide for themselves what to do with the facts at hand. Media organisations will, of course, have their own ideology and biases.

But getting both sides of the story is a fundamental principle in journalism, regardless of your political leanings. When citizens can read both government and Opposition viewpoints, they will be less inclined to dismissing the other side as propaganda. That works to the BN government’s benefit too.

When people trust the media and journalists who verify things before publishing, they do not have to turn to “viral” nonsense on WhatsApp.

Gain people’s trust by opening yourself up. This is how the government can fight fake news.