Malaysia and Singapore push “fake news” laws – RTÉ World Report

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Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur on Nov. 22 2015 (Simon Roughneen)

SINGAPORE — The recent exposé of how polling firm Cambridge Analytica mined Facebook for information on voters was focused mainly on the United States.

But the investigation, which aired on the UK’s Channel 4 last month, has caused ructions in Malaysia after Mark Turnbull, a Cambridge Analytica executive, was filmed bragging that they helped the governing coalition retain power in the country’s last elections in 201, apparently by using social media to profile voters and deliver campaign messages.

“We’ve done it in Mexico, we’ve done it in Malaysia and now we’re going to Brazil,” Turnbull said.

With another election due anytime between now and August, Malaysia’s opposition predictably seized on that claim.

The government in turn said it had nothing to answer for, blaming Mukhriz Mahathir, a former ally turned opposition member, for personally hiring Cambridge Analytica.

Mukhriz Mahathir ran for the ruling coalition, known as the Barisan Nasional, or National Front, when he won the state minister contest for the northwestern Kedah region in 2013, a vote held at the same time as the Front was narrowly winning the national parliamentary election.

Mukhriz is the son of Mahathir Mohamad, the 92 year old former Prime Minister of Malaysia, who will lead the opposition in the upcoming election. Mahathir also defected from the government side after repeatedly criticising the current Prime Minister Najib Razak over corruption allegations involving a state investment fund.

But who to believe? The Cambridge Analytica website featured a short blurb about Malaysia, stating that said it helped the Front win in Kedah with a “targeted messaging campaign highlighting their school improvements.” There was no mention of a wider national effort in other parts of the country.

Mukhriz tweeted that this wording vindicated his version — that Cambridge Analytica was hired by the party, not him personally.

Azrin Zizal, the Malaysia director of SCL, a sister or parent company of Cambridge Analytica, said that Mukhriz Mahathir, who his former boss when Zizal worked for the party, was telling lies.

Looking for answers, obviously more in hope than expectation, I checked the SCL website, where Azrin Zizal’s biography rounds off with a line saying “When time permits, he travels to shoot culture, people and beautiful colours of life.”

Presumably that means shoot with a camera, but, undeterred, I emailed Azrin Zizal using the address on the SCL website.

I got an immediate auto-reply saying my mail was not delivered and suggesting, that despite the email address being publicly available, it was in fact only accessible to a google group member.

Meanwhile revelations on Channel 4 have also had an impact in Singapore, the tiny but wealthy city-state that sits on a few islands off peninsular Malaysia’s southern coast.

Freedom of speech has always been tightly controlled in Singapore, but nonetheless the parliament has been holding hearings into adding to the already wide array of curbs in place: “looking at ways Singapore can thwart deliberate online falsehoods.”

Hearings ran from March 14 until last Wednesday, with internet giants Google and Twitter among those represented.

On March 22, the week after the Cambridge Analytica exposê, Facebook’s Vice President of Public Policy for Asia-Pacific, Simon Milner, was questioned for about 3 hours at the hearings.

Milner conceded that “We should have let people know” about the data breach involving Cambridge Analytica, echoing the previous admission made by his boss, Mark Zuckerberg.

Milner’s colleague Alvin Tan, Facebook’s head of public policy for South-east Asia, said that Singapore already has laws dealing with hate speech and the spread of false news.

But undeterred by the Cambridge Analytica controversy, or the concerns raised in Singapore about a possible “fake news” law there, Malaysia’s government last Monday tabled its own proposal to punish so-called “fake news” with jail sentences of up to 10 years.

According to the Malaysian Bar Council. Malaysia, like Singapore, already has laws in place that undermine freedom of speech.

The lawyers warned also that as they “may involve some embellishment,” caricatures or parody would come under the fake news remit. In other words, telling jokes would be a criminal offence in Malaysia.

2 days later, the Malaysian government then went to parliament with a proposal to redraw the country’s constituencies ahead of this year’s election.

Malaysia’s opposition howled that the country is already gerrymandered, pointing out that even though they won just over 50% of the popular vote in 2013, they ended up with only 88 seats out of the 222 available.

The redrawing of the constituencies appears designed to give increased weight to rural areas, where the governing coalition is strongest, at the expense of opposition strongholds in towns and cities.

But the country’s media might not be able to report the election fairly or accurately, or label the gerrymandering for what it is, as the proposed fake news law give the Malaysian government the final say on what constitutes “fake news.”

What that means is if the news is real but the government does not like it, it can dismiss real news as fake and come up with its own version of events.

Malaysia, in other words, is pushing a fake news ban that would in fact allow the government portray fake news as the real thing.

You couldn’t make it up.

For World Report in Singapore, this is Simon Roughneen

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