Freedom of speech and of the press is thriving in Malaysia and people are free to criticise the government, says Prime Minister Najib Razak, dispelling notions that Putrajaya has cracked down on dissenting voices.
But the media has a responsibility to report accurately, he says, adding in a speech at an international media awards ceremony on Wednesday night that it was unfortunate that some people have fallen for fake news spread by the government’s opponents.
Below is an excerpt from Mr Najib’s speech at the WAN-Ifra 16th Asian Media Awards in Kuala Lumpur.
A free press is a guarantor of accountability and transparency. It should also be a guarantor that the still small voice of truth is heard amid the maelstrom of both information and misinformation that new technologies have unleashed.
We recognise the vital role that newspapers play in free societies, and my Government has opened up the space for the democratic scrutiny they rightfully bring to bear.
We eliminated the bans on opposition party newspapers; we removed the annual renewal requirement for printing licenses from the 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act; and we opened up the Home Ministry’s authority to block, allow or revoke licences to judicial review.
You may sometimes have heard foreign activists talking about “crackdowns” on free speech in Malaysia. But look at our press. You will find criticism of the Government, of our ministers, of our officials, in our newspapers every day.
Sometimes it is the opposition criticising ministers. Sometimes it is ministers criticising other ministers. Sometimes it is the opposition criticising one minister for not criticising another minister.
Sometimes it is former ministers — or even a former prime minister — criticising certain opposition parties for not being critical enough; when those individuals used to criticise those same parties for criticising the Government when they were in power.
It gets very confusing!
But what I can tell you is that there is more than enough criticism to go around. And if you look online and on social media … well, it’s like the Wild West out there.
My point is that free speech is thriving in Malaysia. We are much more open to our citizens exercising their right to voice their opinions — for or against any party — than most other countries in the region; our press, or what is sometimes called the Fourth Estate, is vital to that.
But, with freedom comes responsibility, and part of that responsibility is the need to counter what has become a plague: A plague of false and fake news.
If Jonathan Swift could be warning about the dangers of fake news as long ago as 1710, what on earth would he make of the situation that confronts us today: So-called news stories, although many of them are nothing of the sort, are casually shared, retweeted, messaged, emailed, texted and so on, and believed by too many — with no checking of their veracity at all?
Last November, Stanford University released a study which showed that 82 per cent of 13- and 14-year-olds in America could not tell the difference between an article called “sponsored content” — that is, an advert — and a real news story.
The problem has become so serious and so widespread that the BBC announced earlier this year that it is going to set up a special team, dedicated to fact checking and exposing false news that has gained traction on the Web or on social media.
We are far from immune to this problem here in Malaysia. We have had former leaders talking about Malaysia going bankrupt.
We have had people talking about Malaysia being in danger of becoming a failed state.
Other countries recognise what we are doing. The confidence they have in Malaysia has been demonstrated in the past few months by a series of huge investments that have been announced by China, Saudi Arabia and India.
These investments will lead to thousands of new jobs, a transfer of skills, and will help our economy make the quantum leap to becoming a 21st century beacon of innovation and enterprise in the region and beyond.
Now, some critics with little knowledge of economics have been trying to say that foreign direct investment (FDI) leads to us selling our sovereignty. But Malaysia has been encouraging FDI ever since independence! Are we any less sovereign as a result? Of course not.
To say so is pure ignorance, and betrays a complete lack of understanding of how trade between nations benefits all parties, especially the people. I will never give up an inch of our sovereignty. Ever.
On the contrary, what FDI shows is that people around the world believe that Malaysia is a good place to do business, to grow new businesses, and to expand.
And that commitment is not just for now; it is for the future — because their commitment to invest now, shows that they believe in our future.
They are not wrong. In fact, BAV Consulting and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania recently published a report in which they named Malaysia as the best country to invest in. They said we were the clear frontrunner.
I ask you: Does that sound like a failed state to you?
Unfortunately, when the Government’s opponents spread fake news, some people believe them, because they believe — wrongly — that they would not lie.
This is not confined to Malaysian social media. A well-known foreign newspaper has taken to printing complete lies about the Government. They did that, for instance, about the appointment of a new Governor for Bank Negara last year.
They scandalously even brought His Majesty, the then Yang di-pertuan Agong, into it as well.
All without a shred of evidence, and based solely on nameless, anonymous sources who may not even exist. And multiple sources, including independent authorities, that do not fit part of their narrative, they brazenly ignore.
You may well speculate about why they should print fabricated opposition propaganda and omit other sources that disprove it.
About how they allowed themselves to be used as media proxies of those seeking to interfere in a sovereign nation and change a democratically-elected government mid-cycle.
And about how their supposed journalistic ethics evaporated in their selfish quest for personal fame.
This was fake news entering the mainstream, and lies masquerading as facts. This represents a cancer at the heart of journalism, and this disease can have very serious effects.
Saudi Aramco’s US$7 billion (S$9.8 billion) investment in the Petronas Pengerang Integrated Complex in Malaysia was almost wrecked after a former leader told lies about the state of our country’s economy that were amplified by the media.
Similarly, there will be those who believed a foreign academic who often writes about Malaysia when she wrote last December that Malaysia had suffered an economic contraction.
That is nonsense, of course, but did any of this academic’s numerous close friends in the Malaysian opposition rush to correct her? Evidently not. In fact, they began to echo her false statements, despite knowing all too well that it was false. Indeed, this falsehood is still in her article on various websites — because it suits their political, partisan, selfish purpose to have people believe the worst of this country. The facts are these.
We have had years of healthy growth, and even in these difficult times for the global economy, we registered growth of 4.2 per cent in 2016. We expect a slightly higher figure for this year, and for it to rise in 2018.
These figures show Malaysia growing at more than double the rates the IMF predicts for advanced economies over the same period.
Between 2010 and 2016, we have created 1.8 million jobs, of which more than one million were high-income jobs.
We have been transforming Malaysia, at every level, from the infrastructure projects that will open up the East Coast of the peninsula, to the Pan-Borneo Highway that will be of huge benefit to Sabah and Sarawak; and to the culture of innovation and entrepreneurship we have been cultivating through numerous programmes and projects — with, most recently, the establishment of the world’s first Digital Free Trade Zone.
All the time bearing in mind that our focus on human capital means forging a nation in which no Malaysian is left behind, and that the sustainable and inclusive future we are building is for all our citizens, young and old, regardless of ethnicity, faith or community.
These are the facts about Malaysia.
We here today, in this room, can and may disagree about many things. That includes the performance of the Government and the state of Malaysia in general.
But I would urge you to bear in mind the words of a journalist still revered today, the Manchester Guardian’s long-time editor, C P Scott. He famously declared, and I quote, that “comment is free, but facts are sacred”.
It is your duty as publishers, editors, reporters and designers to maintain the trust that readers have in your titles, and to fight to the last this tide of fake and false news that threatens to turn truth into a purely subjective matter, with little relation to the actual facts.
The Government of Malaysia will be on your side. All we ask in return is the opportunity to remind you to rely, in your reporting and sourcing, in whichever country that may be, not on rumours, not on unsourced anonymous quotes, and not on invented propaganda, no matter now persuasively it may be presented, but on verified facts.
We have no fear of the facts, for they are undisputed. For the future of newspapers, both in print and online, to be as healthy as we all want and need it to be, I am sure that is something that all here would agree on.
May I now salute all the brave editors, publishers and reporters whose commitment to the facts and to the pursuit of truth have led them to be honoured tonight.
You are vital to our democracies, and we are delighted to host you here at this dinner to recognise your work. Long may it continue.