Fake news spreaders deserve heavier penalty, experts propose

Fake news spreaders deserve heavier penalty, experts propose

KUALA LUMPUR,. With the growing popularity of social media platforms, the dissemination of fake news remains a global concern.

Malaysia is no exception. According to a study carried out by Global Risk Journalism Hub – a research network on issues surrounding global journalism and the communication of global risks – Malaysia is ranked third (77 per cent) among countries in South Asia in terms of fake news circulation, behind Thailand (82 per cent) and the Philippines (88 per cent).

The study, titled “Global Risk Journalism Reporting”, was carried out from 2021 to 2022 in 35 South Asian, Arab, Latin American, European, African and North American countries, as well as in Australia and New Zealand, and involved 800 media practitioners including 180 in Malaysia.

Address issue immediately

Commenting on the findings, Global Risk Journalism Hub co-founder Associate Prof Dr Sara Chinnasamy said many media practitioners are aware of the rise in the circulation of fake news but feel it is beyond their control, citing among other factors the waning credibility of, and public trust in, the mainstream media.

Sara, who headed the research team in the South Asian chapter of the study under a subtopic titled “How Malaysians Are Consuming Information and to What Extent Misinformation is Considered Challenging”, said if credibility and trust are not an issue, then there would have been no space for alternative sources of information to exist.

“Most of them (media practitioners) in South Asian nations, including Malaysia, who participated in the study hoped to get the full cooperation of their governments and agencies to curb (the spread of) fake news fast.

“It’s not solely the responsibility of journalists to disseminate accurate news,” the Universiti Teknologi Mara lecturer added.

She said based on the study, 82 per cent of respondents in Malaysia (87 per cent in India and 91 per cent in the Philippines) hoped for speedier dissemination of news from authorised sources.

The need for verified information becomes even more critical when a political crisis, pandemic or natural disaster occurs.

According to Sara, if the local mainstream media credibility issue is not addressed quickly, it may drive the public to turn to information released by the alternative media including Western news agencies.

“The establishment of the Malaysian Media Council must be expedited. It will also be better if all media (outlets) in this country come under its patronage as it will enable them to counter the spread of fake news more effectively. The existence of a media council will also help news organisations to be regulated by one body, so there will be no overlapping,” she added.

Stricter law

Sara also pointed to the need to improve existing laws that regulate new media in order to keep pace with current technological developments.

Meanwhile, based on a recent study carried out by global proxy service provider Proxyrack, Malaysia shared second ranking with the Philippines in terms of social media usage in the world.

The same study also showed Malaysia was in third place in terms of connectivity with nearly 97 per cent of its population using the Internet.

More often than not, the dissemination of fake news via social media and e-commerce platforms and online videos is aimed at increasing traffic to their sites in order to generate higher income through advertisements, as well as ruining the reputation of certain parties or businesses.

Lawyer Muhamad Akram Abdul Aziz called for a stiffer penalty for spreading fake news considering the danger it poses to public order.

“A heavier penalty should be considered (by the authorities) as it will serve as a stern reminder to the people out there not to circulate false news. Prevention is one of the principles of punishment, hence (the implementation of more severe punishment) will allow the people to see for themselves the consequences awaiting them if they are caught committing such an offence,” he said.

Currently, those detained for disseminating fake news in written and oral form can be prosecuted under Section 505(b) of the Penal Code while those caught circulating fake news online face action under Section 233(1)(a) of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998.

Those convicted under Section 233 can be fined up to RM50,000 or jailed for up to a year, or both. The penalty under the Penal Code is imprisonment for up to two years or a fine, or both.

Between 2020 and May 31, 2022, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) received 3,285 complaints of fake news. As for this year, it received 143 complaints in the first two months.

New initiative, verify facts

To address the threat posed by fake news, the Malaysian National News Agency (Bernama) took the initiative to create a special portal called MyCheck Malaysia (MyCheck), a platform for the public to check the validity of reports that go viral on social media.

The portal, operational since March 2020, serves as a fact checker that operates in a transparent and editorially-independent manner and complies with international standards, namely the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN).

MyCheck fact checker Fatin Najmi Mohammad Shah, 32, said since August 2020, the portal fact-checked a total of 260 reports covering various issues including health, government policy, cost of living and other matters that went viral.

“Besides Covid-19, other major issues we handled were related to the 15th general election. Among the issues that went viral then were those pertaining to power cuts at vote counting centres and scheduling Covid-19-positive persons to cast their votes in the evening.

“In the process of checking those facts, we carried out a detailed investigation into the allegations which the individuals and organisations concerned denied. For our (fact-checking) process, we must use fact-checking tools and also reveal the methods we used to identify the veracity of the news concerned,” she said.

On the government’s side, the Ministry of Communications and Digital operates a website, sebenarnya.my, that serves as a one-stop centre for Malaysians to verify any information before sharing it with others.

The portal was developed by MCMC in collaboration with various government agencies and was launched in March 2017.

According to MCMC’s official portal, since its launch, sebenarnya.my has received 300 million views as of June 30, 2022. It receives an average of 4.76 million hits a month.

Hawana’s role

Meanwhile, political analyst Dr G Manimaran told Bernama that National Journalists’ Day (Hawana) is the best platform for media organisations to discuss the huge challenge they face in curbing the spread of fake news, especially those written and shared by pseudo-journalists on social media.

Hawana is observed on May 29 annually and this year’s celebrations, themed Free and Secure Media, A Pillar of Democracy, will take place in Ipoh, Perak, from May 27-29.

Said Manimaran: “News is produced by journalists who abide by their journalistic principles, which cannot be replicated by just any individual or party. Today, however, we are seeing many people who wish to write and become ‘instant’ journalists by using their respective social media platforms.”

“But what does the word ‘news’ mean? So, Hawana must stress to the public that news can only be validated if it is produced by a trained journalist employed by a registered media organisation.”

Dean of the School of Communication at Universiti Sains Malaysia Associate Prof Dr Bahiyah Omar said journalists these days have a bigger responsibility to fulfill as they not only have to report news items but also correct fake news.

She said mainstream media journalists are trained to seek information from verified sources and file their reports in accordance with the ethics governing the profession. Their reports also have to go through various stages of screening before they are disseminated to the public.

“I think the time has come for media literacy to be introduced as a subject in schools to educate people to differentiate between true and false news,” she added.

–Bernama

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