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MIC urges govt to reinstate Anti-Fake News Act after influx of false news related to Covid-19

KUALA LUMPUR, March 31 — The Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) has urged the government to reinstate the repealed Anti-Fake News Act, after a series of arrests involving those who spread disinformation about the Covid-19 outbreak.

In a statement today, National MIC Youth leader R. Thinalan said that the law is now proven necessary, as such disinformation affects the work of the frontliners who are fighting Covid-19, by worsening the panic surrounding the spread of the virus, and hampering effort to contain the outbreak.

“For example, several fake news regarding a complete lockdown similar to what has been imposed in Italy, caused many to crowd places such as shopping malls for panic buying and bus stops to travel back to their hometowns. As a result, this may have worsened the spread of the virus. Many would not have resorted to such actions had they known that only a movement control order (MCO) was implemented instead of a lockdown.

“This is just one of the many examples where fake news has been hampering the efforts of frontliners to contain the virus. The existing platforms and laws are insufficient to deal with the surge of fake news amidst this crisis,” Thinalan said, adding that just using a fact-check example on the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission’s (MCMC)  platform, Sebenarnya.my does not solve the problem.

He said that while the website’s administrators have been doubled efforts to combat fake news regarding Covid-19, it is simply impossible for it accurately determine if a piece of news was indeed fake.

He pointed to the current update on the platform, which had listed a news article regarding the loss of sense of taste and smell as one of the symptoms of Covid-19 as fake news, despite many legitimate sources claiming otherwise.

“In fact, there are reports stating that doctor’s organisations such as the ENT UK urging the World Health Organisation (WHO) to officially list it as one of the symptoms of Covid-19. Needless to say, the implications would be huge if Sebenarnya.my turns out to be wrong on this, as many who were led to believe that loss of sense of taste and smell had nothing to do with Covid-19, may not have taken the next step to be tested for the virus.

“However, as mentioned earlier, it is unfair to apportion the blame on Sebenarnya.my or MCMC, as it is just impossible for a one-stop centre to be accurate in every fact-checking exercise,” Thinalan argued.

Conversely, he said that in the Anti-Fake News Act, there were mechanisms in place for any person affected by the fake news, to make applications to court to have such fake news expeditiously removed.

Instead of the fact-checking role solely shouldered by the MCMC, he said that the role may now be shouldered by many non-profit organisations and willing individuals who could have used the Act as a platform to battle fake news.

“Also, apart from just a simple removal of the publication of fake news, there are mechanisms in place to also order for an apology, which will be an effective measure to clarify and battle fake news. These are all versatile and flexible features in the repealed Act that are much needed especially in times of crisis such as this.

“On the other hand, we have the police who are also doing their level best in arresting people who are spreading fake news. However, as law enforcers, they can only act within the boundaries of the law,” he added.

A lawyer by profession, Thinalan explained that the existing relevant laws such as Section 505 of the Penal Code and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) 1998 are insufficient, as while the laws may be used to combat fake news to some extent, both are still  ”grossly insufficient” to deal with crucial situations currently.

“While Pakatan Harapan may have been too short-sighted in having the vision to see the significance of the Anti-Fake News Act 2018, so much so that they had it repealed for political mileage, MIC Youth urges the government to consider bringing it back to remedy this issue, despite being largely unpopular like a bitter medicine that our country needs,” he added.

Last week, state news agency Bernama reported that the Communications and Multimedia Ministry, in collaboration with the Royal Malaysia Police (PDRM), had recorded statements of five suspects who allegedly spread fake news on Covid-19.

Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah reportedly said the five suspects were in addition to the six people who were already charged for the offence.

The Dewan Negara had on December 19, passed the repeal of the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 (Act 803) after the Bill was tabled for second reading.

The Anti-Fake News Act was repealed by the Dewan Rakyat- again on October 9 last year, after it was rebuffed by the Dewan Negara.

The government first tabled the Bill in September 2018, and it got past the Dewan Rakyat, but was rejected by the Dewan Negara.