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Fake News Laws and Democracy Don't Mix

What is fake news and what is not will be clearly defined, says Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

He said the new government will not restrict on the press regardless of their leanings, but warned that any efforts to instigate the people will not be tolerated.

“Fake news laws will be given clear definitions so that news companies know what is fake news and what is not fake news.

“Even though we support freedom of the press and free speech, but there are limits. If they purposely try to create chaos, they will have to face action under specific laws.”

However, he said the government would not restrict any factual reports.

“If the press writes (factual) reports, even if makes the government uncomfortable, they are free to do so, we will not take action,” Mahathir said in a special televised address on RTM today.

Our comment

Dr M will remember how the authorities accused him of lying over his slashed plane tyres just a week ago.  They called it Fake News.

‘Facts’ in the world of science are usually established through being tried and tested. Even so, matters regarded as fact for decades can later be discovered to be false, usually thanks to dissenters who eventually proved their point. The context of human discourse is far more complex and changing still.  You cannot create a scientific ‘definition’ to govern such things and human society needs those dissenters to be able to voice their position.

There are already huge disincentives facing journalists and public persons when it comes to deliberately or mistakenly disseminating false information.  Firstly, a reputation once lost is hard to regain.  Secondly, there are paths to sue within a civil context.  That is enough.

Leaders ought not to fear a false bogeyman – the idea that some unknown person could suddenly spout nonsense that would have hoards running onto the streets.  For every purveryor of false information there is the check of a trusted voice of good sense to counter-balance the impulses of the people in these situations.

Only one phenomenon breaks that rule, which is the development of cults – mostly extremist versions of established religions.  Cults can stir up dangerous actions by the indoctrinated followers, fed daily on false information.  Hence, bombs on the streets of Europe and elsewhere.

However, there is terror legislation for these matters and dangerous preachers are a very different target to journalists and ought to be handled separately.

Journalists and citizens must be allowed speak freely and even be allowed to get it wrong, if they can show their intentions were to inform about something they genuinely had good reason to believe and are willing to correct and amend if found mistaken (as opposed to intended and malicious lies).  These are the principles that have now evolved after much pain and argument in most modern democracies and Malaysia would do well to join them.

After all, the alternative is far worse.  It gives power to people like Najib to tell people like Dr M that they are lying over slashed tyres, 1MDB and all the rest.

SR rests its case.

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