LETTER | The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) is alarmed by and calls into question the need for the controversial Special Affairs Department (Jasa) propaganda unit to be revived and its RM85.5 million allocation under Budget 2021. According to the Communications and Multimedia Ministry (KKMM), the increase in federal funds is aimed at hiring more staff members and developing digital infrastructure throughout the country to strategically ensure an effective flow of information and to counter disinformation related to Covid-19 mitigation.
In the interests of accountability and transparency, we call on KKMM to provide a clear and credible rationale that would identify the scope of strategic responses and justify the need for such an inflated budget that comes at the expense of the public’s current medical and socio-economic needs and priorities. A mere statement from KKMM stating that the government aims to develop specific activities and hire the necessary staff to support supposed activities does not address the public’s interest in demanding an academic and expert rationale.
It is noted that the need to address disinformation and support effective disclosure of information in response to Covid-19 updates and related measures is indeed legitimate and warrants urgent attention. These measures to counter misinformation and disinformation in the context of Covid-19 would require timely access to trusted scientific and verifiable sources of information. However, any attempts by the government to counter misinformation or disinformation cannot undermine democratic guarantees and fundamental freedoms or come at the expense of funds that should instead be channelled for more productive means of battling Covid-19.
Furthermore, having any government or its apparatus being the single or preferred source of information or promoting specific narrative is not desirable as it would dominate and adopt any current regime's propaganda and likely push the public to search for alternative sources on platforms that do not effectively filter hate speeches or targeted contentious information.
In this regard, rather than depending on an inflated budget, we urge the government to:
Adopt a coordinated approach that would reduce the cost to be allocated by the government. This would require the government to engage more constructively and meaningfully with multi-stakeholders, specifically the media, civil society organisations, academics, multilateral organisations and technologists, in developing countermeasures that would promote disclosure of information, counter-narratives and mitigating responses to keep the public informed. The government must leverage existing digital technologies to spread reliable and verifiable messaging.
Further, enhance the government’s fact-checking services like Sebenarnya.my through collaboration with technology giants to filter out false news and promote information from credible sources. For example, there is the Work with the United Nations Development Program, which supports the #CoronaVirusFactsAlliance. It brings together more than 100 fact-checkers from over 45 countries in the International Fact-Checking Network.
Stop its current track record of arbitrarily stiffing any public discourse or opinion by using archaic and repressive laws such as the Sedition Act 1948, Section 233 of the Communication and Multimedia Act (CMA) 1998, the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) 1984 and so on. These laws must be repealed at once. Similarly, the State must repeal the Official Secrets Act (OSA) and enact a federal-level Right to Information (RTI) law that would guarantee disclosure and access to information and influence healthy debates on matters of public interest.
Strengthen the role of media and create an enabling environment that would promote media freedom and pluralism to ensure accurate and timely reporting. This would instead require the government to ensure allocations in the budget to provide the necessary support needed to ensure the sustainability of the media affected by the current trend in their revenue deficit to avoid the risks of more alternative sources being forced to close down.
We urge the government to place the best interests of the peoples at the heart of Budget 2021 and not let its political agenda undermine the priorities.
The writer is CIJ executive director.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.