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Saturday, February 3, 2018

Fake news for a fake democracy



“Totalitarian propaganda perfects the techniques of mass propaganda, but it neither invents them nor originates their themes. These were prepared for them by 50 years of imperialism and disintegration of the nation-state, when the mob entered the scene of European politics. Like the earlier mob leaders, the spokesmen for totalitarian movements possessed an unerring instinct for anything that ordinary party propaganda or public opinion did not care or dare to touch. Everything hidden, everything passed over in silence, became of major significance, regardless of its own intrinsic importance. The mob really believed that truth was whatever respectable society had hypocritically passed over, or covered up with corruption.”
― Hannah Arendt, ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’
DAP’s Lim Kit Siang’s offer to the Umno regime to form a bipartisan committee to tackle “fake news” is the cherry on top of the horse manure cake that is politics in this country. This is exactly what Malaysia needs right now - two highly partisan entities determining what news is fake or otherwise.
Any rational person would realise that this is just another way for the propagandists of Putrajaya to control the narrative and the opposition to play the blame game and make ridiculous suggestions of bipartisanship when the reality is that nobody in the current system has any genuine intention of working on specific issues for the betterment of the rakyat.
Umno contention with this committee is to legitimise the crackdown on press freedom in the hopes that they can finally cripple not the alternative press – them too – but social media, which is the main medium that the opposition uses to get its narratives out. Politicians lie, spin and fabricate to get votes but more importantly, to control the narrative.


Remember when people thought the Umno grand poobah would be arrested if he went to the United States and the elaborate “news” articles that were fabricated and disseminated online or how Kit Siang was in Kuala Lumpur during the May 13 riots and was part of the cabal who instigated it. This is what we are dealing with here in Malaysia.
It is, of course, no surprise that Singapore also intends to form a committee to combat fake news. As reported in The Diplomat in the beginning of the year – “On Wednesday, Singapore’s parliament agreed to set up a new select committee to study what the government has characterized as ‘deliberate online falsehoods’. The move is just one of several steps that the Southeast Asian state has taken in its response to the growing challenge of fake news, in spite of various concerns raised by some opponents.”
Singapore, like some of its other neighbours such as Malaysia and Indonesia, has become increasingly aware of the growing magnitude of the challenge of fake news (See: ‘Winning Asia’s war on fake news’). “As part of this, the country’s top officials have been publicly and privately emphasising the dire consequences of fake news to the country specifically – including generating unnecessary public alarm, diverting limited resources, and harming the reputations of individuals and institutions – as well as considering new measures that can be taken.”


Laws to combat fake news, as lawyer Eric Paulsen (photo) rightly points, is detrimental to freedom of speech but more importantly, points out that nobody has a monopoly on the truth. We live in a time when fact-based assessments are clouded in a patina of partisanship, hence any attempts by politicians to control the news should be rejected by rational Malaysians.
Another weapon for oppressors
Paulsen referenced a Malaysiakini case which is worth considering because it demonstrates how the Umno regime defines fake news.
You can read my defence of Malaysiakini here – “It was not (editor-in-chief) Steven Gan or Malaysiakini that claimed that the attorney-general (AG) was not fit for his job and should resign; they were reporting on what a critic of the AG said during a press conference. Furthermore, and this is also important, is it really ‘obscene, offensive or false’ for a citizen of this country to call into question the credibility, fitness for office or the resignation of a public official?”


France’s Emmanuel Macron (photo) whose campaign was target by Russian provocateurs, is naturally inclined to believe that laws are needed to combat fake news but what he has done and indeed many other “Western” governments who have been plagued by Russian operations, is to give tyrannical regimes the opportunity to propagate laws which further stifle freedom of speech and expression.
Here are two interesting aspects of what Macron’s intends his legislation to achieve as reported by NPR -
1. “Among other things, Macron said the law should require websites to disclose their source of funding and have a cap on the amount of money they receive from sponsored content.”
2. “During an election, the government would be authorised to block a website to suppress fake news, he said. He insisted that press freedom could be preserved under such a law.”
The above, of course, is already happening in Malaysia. Websites have been closed down and donors who fund news sites deemed detrimental to the Umno hegemon have been targeted by the state security apparatus. Malaysiakini has been on the receiving end of harassment because they propagate “fake news” and numerous attempts have been made to threaten social media users who spread “fake news” on chat groups and the like.


The phenomenon of fake news as propaganda of foreign powers threatening domestic elections has morphed into news that is detrimental to tyrannic hegemons or political personalities. Mainstream news organisations in the West are target by either left-wing or right-wing ideologues when it suits their purposes.
In the Malaysian context as with many other kleptocratic or theocratic regimes, fake news is anything other than the official narratives of the establishment. While there have always been lies, spin and propaganda by both sides, this idea that fake news is a danger to this country is nothing but outrage porn for the political elites.
While the establishment through it mainstream propaganda organs demonises the opposition, the opposition has to fight with one hand tied behind their backs because the legal and political realities favour the Umno establishment. Meanwhile, the fake news about the Umno hegemon that floats around the social media are sometimes debunked or is taken as gospel truth by a highly partisan electorate.
What I want from the opposition are guarantees in writing that restrictions on freedom of speech and expression enacted by the Umno hegemon and by political operatives who not too long ago were part of the hegemon, would be lifted.
This is the only way to combat fake news.

S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.- Mkini

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