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MCMC may be granted the authority to remove nefarious social media posts – is this a good thing?

Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo said the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) may be granted authority to remove fake news and racist posts from social media, The Malay Mail reported.

He said this was among the measures discussed in line with the government’s intention to enact legislation addressing the abuse of social media, which he claims has been rampant of late.

The minister said the matter was still being discussed with the relevant parties and the new legislation was expected to be tabled at Parliament by July at the latest.

“The government is still studying the possibility and making amendments to the existing law so that it will be more effective in addressing issues of racism, religious hate crime and offensive messages on the monarchy institution. These are among the aspects we are looking into now.

“We are looking at how we can give the MCMC the power. I hope the new legislation can be tabled at the next Parliament session (which to begin on Monday) or the following session (in July),” he told reporters after attending the closing of the Malaysian chapter of Safer Internet Day 2019 celebration in Putrajaya yesterday.

To a question whether the National Cyber Security Policy had something to do with the formulation of the new legislation, Gobind said: “The policy is different as it encompasses the country’s next moves and direction in addressing new challenges in the era of digital economy.”

“Whereas the legislation encompasses issues of social media abuse just like the existing provisions under the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 and other relevant laws, but the policy implementation is wider,” he said, adding that the policy is expected to be completed in July.

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Freedom of speech is a delicate balance

Freedom of speech is the power to express one’s opinion without the fear of retaliation, censorship or legal sanction. Freedom of speech is also a delicate balance.

However, having the authority to remove online content on the premise of fake news and content that is deemed to be a threat to the nation’s harmony is straddling a very thin line between censorship and freedom of speech. Who decides what is sensitive? What are the guidelines and parameters that determine whether a post should be deleted? Is there an avenue for appeal? How are the content creators protected from false accusations?

Ostensibly, the proposed regulation could be beneficial in making sure that provocateurs who are genuinely looking do unravel our country’s peace and harmony must not be allowed to do so but at the same time, those who are merely expressing their opinion must not be hindered.

While other countries – the United Kingdom, Pakistan and Singapore, among others – are looking at ways in which social media can be better moderated there are no easy answers to this question of freedom of speech in the digital age.

Talks about granting authority to remove online content, specifically social media post leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It is, on the surface at least, very simillar to the hugely unpopular Anti-Fake News Act (AFNA), which is still in affect.

In addition, there are already a number of laws in place that are adequate in tackling sedition, defamation and blasphemy among others. Article 500, 501 and 502 in the Penal Code are some examples.

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Hence, the government together with the ministry must thread this path with the highest degree of caution ensuring that there is a balance between protecting the interests of the nation and the freedom of expression granted in the democracy like Malaysia.

Beyond merely forming the framework, a carefully planned communications and PR plan needs to be put in place as well ensuring that the people are on board with the government’s move towards a more moderated social media environment in Malaysia. Similarly, as this new ruling effect everyone, there should be a mechanism in place for the public to express their thoughts, opinions and concerns about the new law (if it becomes one) so all facets are covered.

To be fair…

To be fair, the minister is also looking at fostering ethical and professional journalism as a preventive counter-measure agianst fake news. In his speech at Malaysian Human Rights Commission media event held last month, stressed that strengthening media professionalism, ethical journalism and the establishment of self-regulatory frameworks and mechanisms are pivotal to combat fake news.

He said this would encourage more mature and responsible journalism as well as enhance greater accountability and healthy checks and balances amongst journalists especially in their reporting.

At the same event, Gobind also expressed hope that the ministry and all relevant parties could work together to achieve a system in which press freedom could be preserved and ensure responsible journalism in search for a balance required for governance, media and human rights here in Malaysia

Personally, I’m all for it. Creating responsible media consumption and responsible media creation is tantamaunt especially when we’re living in a time where our real lives and online lives are seemingly insaperable, where younger and younger audiences are gaining access to more and more information that they barely have time to process, let alone comprehend.

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The time is right for the government, the ministry, journalists and Malaysians to have discourse about how we want to shape the landscape in which we create and consume content in which we can work together to advocate self-regulation rather than requiring the governmetn to decide what we can see and say.

The time is now.

[image credit]

Amin Ashaari