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Fake News and the freedom of the press

The phrase ‘fake news’ entered popular parlance with the rise of Donald Trump in the United States. There has been no legislation brought to curb fake news in spite of its detriment to public trust in the US media. This is not the case in other parts of the world.

This past week, uproar was caused in Malaysia and India as both governments introduced legislation to restrict ‘fake news’.

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government passed the Anti-Fake News 2018 bill which carries a fine of $123,000 or up to six years in prison. In India, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry announced that journalists credentials could be revoked permanently if found to be writing/ disseminating fake news. However, Prime Minister Modi ordered the withdrawal of this statement and instead journalists will be referred to the Press Council of India.

Addressing the spread of fake news should be a priority for news and social media outlets but the (attempted) moves by the Malaysian and India governments should be viewed as nothing less than an assault on the freedom of the press. This is because clear guidelines are not provided as to what fake news is and more significantly, the government itself has the final say in deciding what news is fake and what is true.

The timing of these moves is especially troubling as both countries have elections coming up within a year. Both countries already have abysmal track records when it comes to their relationship with the press. The international organization, Reporters Without Borders since 2002 has produced its annual World Press Freedom Index.  Out of 180 countries, India was ranked 136 and Malaysia at 144 in terms of media freedom.

These moves obviously have serious repercussions for the health of democracy by giving the government another way of curbing opposition and dissent. A vibrant media is essential at promoting accountability.

In particular, Prime Minister Modi has not given a single press conference in his nearly four years in office. But scrutiny by the media is vital.

This is more important now more than ever as the current government has been strongly linked to a Hindutva ideology which among other things believes that Christians are foreign to the Indian nation, and enemies to its integrity.

Over the past few years in the country, journalists have experienced high levels of violence including intimidation by police and the high-profile murder of Gauri Lankesh, an ardent opponent of Hindutva who was gunned down on the steps of her own house in Bangalore.

With other countries in the region such as Singapore and the Philippines contemplating similar laws we must question how the truth can be monopolized by the majority. And if it is what happens to those standing up for their rights? What is the future of democracy in light of this fake news era?

Image Credit: CC by Najib Razak/Wikimedia Commons