COMMENT | The aim of the Anti-Fake News law is clear – to sow fear among Malaysians and terrorise them into unquestioned submission. For those who use social media (which is just about everyone), this is the mother of all laws - Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak’s version of shock and awe.
It’s not that we are not concerned about fake news. We all are. But there are better ways of stopping it. We have spelt it out here in this KiniGuide.
And yes, a number of other countries are mulling fake news laws too. But they don’t have the range of other legal weapons the Malaysian government has in its arsenal to go after those who allegedly spread fake news.
Throw in selective prosecution and a pliant judiciary and we know the kind of trouble we will face with this new law. Before this, for example, the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA) was used against activists, journalists, opposition politicians and even cartoonists and entertainers.
It was used against me and Malaysiakini co-founder Premesh Chandran over a video we published that criticised the attorney-general for his handling of the 1MDB scandal. We are now out on bail. If we are found guilty, we could face a one-year jail sentence.
Indeed, the new law is more than just another layer of control by the government. It is meant to be the final nail in the coffin of our already floundering democracy.
That’s why it is packed with hefty penalties – up to RM500,000 fine and/or up to 10 years’ jail. The jail sentence has now been reduced to six years probably due to the public outcry but the half-a-million ringgit fine remains.
They might as well impose a death sentence. What is the difference between that and being driven to bankruptcy (which itself is a life sentence) or spending years in the slammer? All this for spreading information that may not even be fake?
And it is not just the penalties that are draconian. The authorities can even get a court order to compel an individual or an organisation to immediately take down allegedly “fake news” - without the judge hearing the other side out first.
While you can file an application to challenge the decision, the said “fake news” will have to be removed in the meantime. Otherwise, you will face an additional charge. In a nutshell, you’re guilty until proven innocent.
And should the authorities cite public order or national security as reasons for the removal of the “fake news”, then all bets are off – you don’t even have the recourse to challenge this in court.
Thus, fake news is whatever the government says it is. Deputy Information Minister Jailani Johari has warned that unverified facts on the 1MDB scandal will be considered fake news. This is a taste of things to come.
The question is, how are we to verify anything on the 1MDB affair when the report of the government's probe into the scandal is sealed as a state secret and whoever who leaks it faces a mandatory one-year jail sentence?
According to Jailani's boss, Salleh Said Keruak, the anti-fake news law will not silence the debate on 1MDB - only that Malaysians cannot make claims that the sovereign wealth fund lost RM42 billion. But how does one know whether that is true or fake when 1MDB itself cannot even produce its own audited accounts for the past three years?
It is clear this law is not to protect the people.
It is to protect the government.
This anti-fake news law is particularly obnoxious as it coerces Malaysians into self-censoring themselves. Having worked in the mainstream media, I know how insidious self-censorship can be. You can’t see it. It is invisible. It happens within the confines of our own minds. That’s why it’s dangerous. And very effective.
The moment we censor ourselves for fear of the law, the authorities have won. They don’t even have to lift a finger, let alone send the police after you.
Will this new law intimidate Malaysians? Perhaps. Some Malaysians will be cowed. But will it intimidate Malaysiakini? Rest assured, not even in the slightest.
When we embarked on this journey 18 years ago, we knew we would face intimidation, harassment, raids, arrests and perhaps even jail terms. We got into this venture with our eyes wide open.
The main reason we have survived this long - when many others have folded - is partly because we are prudent in our finances. But while we may be tight-fisted in our budgeting, we do not hold back when it comes to speaking truth to power and holding power to account. And certainly, this new law will not stop us from continuing to do so.
And we are able to do this because we know we are not alone. You are together with us.
We will definitely need this fund in this post-anti-fake news law era. Believe me, it’s not a matter of if, but when, this law is used against Malaysiakini.
In George Orwell’s dystopian novel, ‘1984’, Winston Smith, the key protagonist, was tortured by the secret police and sent for “re-education”. The goal is to force citizens to reject the evidence staring in their faces. It is a dictatorship where what is fake is true and what is true is fake.
The torturer says to Winston: “You are a slow learner, Winston."
"How can I help it? How can I help but see what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four."
"Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”
For Malaysians, 2018 may well be the new 1984.
Unless that is, we summon the courage to tell Big Brother No 1 that two and two make four. Not five. Not three. And not all of them at once.
STEVEN GAN is Malaysiakini co-founder and editor-in-chief.