Better to engage people

By Terence Fernandez, The Sun

AS someone who had been on the receiving end of slanderous remarks and even a case of impersonation, I can relate to the need at times to control misinformation online. But by understanding something doesn’t mean one agrees with or advocates decisions that will take us back to the dark ages.

By announcing proposed amendments to the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) to include online media and the Internet, the government is in effect reneging on a promise it made more than a decade ago not to censor the Internet. The pledge was made to not only Malaysians but also the thousands of potential foreign investors we were trying to woo to Cyberjaya.

While Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz explained that there need not be anymore laws to regulate the Internet, what one may fail to realise is that online media may now come under the same kind of restrictions that their print counterparts are subject to – perhaps even an annual licence to operate?

The subtle threat of the Sedition Act and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission Act is also another way to exert stricter controls over what’s posted online.

Nazri cites national security as a reason for going back on the tenets of the 10-point Bill of Guarantees of the Malaysian Multimedia Super Corridor, which include non-censorship.

Known or unknown to him, “national security” has been used by repressive regimes to commit the worst kinds of atrocities. Malaysia certainly does not fall into this category; but it does not help that when the whole populace is forging ahead, the administration tries to hold us back by controlling technology and the flow of information. It would be a frustrating attempt and even foolhardy to even try to curb information as people and technology will find a way to get that information across.

While even the prime minister has embraced Twitter, it seems ironic that his administration is toying with the idea of silencing the Internet. The government should continue to engage the people via traditional and print media. With the facilities at its disposal, it should be engaging the people to counter whatever untruths or “threats to national security” lurking in cyberspace. One is sure that a fraction of the RM2,587,652,100 allotted this year to the Information, Communications and Culture Ministry can go a long way to “educate” the people and counter the lies, innuendos, allegations and “national security” matters that keep making the Internet a free for all.

At the same time, our foreign missions should learn to engage Malaysians abroad to offer explanations to counter whatever they read on blogs and websites which are unfriendly to the country and its leaders. Speaking of which, there are indeed irresponsible individuals and groups who hide behind pseudonyms and email accounts who wreak havoc on people’s reputations and the nation’s as well. But seriously, as there are as many immature and reckless folk who post anything and everything, there are more discerning people who always take what they read online with a pinch of salt.

So the government should stop skirting around the issue and tell us what its real concern is – alternative views which could be interpreted as political dissent, as well as information which may not be available locally.

However, by exercising maturity in addressing dissenting voices, the government would be doing itself a favour and endear itself to the populace, where the establishment demonstrates that it is capable of rational, cohesive and mature discourse.

Freeing up the flow of information will demonstrate that it is transparent, unafraid and unabashed by criticisms against it. If history has taught us anything it is that one cannot curb information (including misinformation). Be it horseback riders, carrier pigeons, smoke signals and names stitched onto cloth, ultimately the message always gets through. How can one even consider that in the electronic age one can stop people from talking to each other?