AAS calls for Emergency Ordinance on fake news to be withdrawn or revised

Court. — DayakDaily.com file pic

KUCHING, March 17: The Advocates Association of Sarawak (AAS) is calling for the immediate withdrawal and/or review of the Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance on ‘fake news’ relating to Covid-19 or Emergency Proclamation as it appears to erode the freedom of speech and expression as enshrined in Article 10 of the Federal Constitution.

AAS president Antonio Sim, in a press statement today, emphasised that the ordinance fell short of clarity with unnecessarily and disproportionately severe and excessive punishment which may disregard the public’s right to privacy and is subject to abuse.

“The ordinance lacks clarity, whereby it fails to set clear and proper requirements to specify the ambit of ‘fake news’ and what amount to ‘prohibited content’.

“It must be material and cause real harm to legitimate interests, failure of which are antithesis to human rights and democracy,” he said.

Sim pointed out that the wide definition of ‘fake news’ in the ordinance related to “any news, information, data and reports which is wholly or partly false relating to Covid-19 and the Emergency Proclamation whether in the forms of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas” was far reaching and appeared to be indefinite.

“The ordinance appears to criminalise the act of creating, publishing, or disseminating any ‘fake news’ in relation to Covid-19 or the Emergency Proclamation in the country, application which extends to anyone violating its terms anywhere in the world,” he added.

Sim also observed that the scale of punishment was unnecessarily and disproportionately severe and excessive in light of the general public facing difficulty and uncertain times as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Instead, he emphasised that the ordinance should have allowed for the courts to exercise discretion over the amount of fines on a case-by-case basis rather than creating limitations on sentencing with such harsh sentences.

“More alarmingly, the ordinance also excludes and overrides the provisions of the Evidence Act 1950 in that evidence howsoever obtained is admissible under the ordinance.

“This amounts to a desecration of the existing protection granted to the people under the criminal procedures and risks violating the people’s right to a fair trial,” he said.

As under the ordinance, a police officer is granted wide powers to gain access to computerised data while seizure and refusal to yield passwords is categorised as an offence and that any list of documents and things seized howsoever obtained shall be admissible in court as evidence, Sim viewed that such laws appeared to disregard the public’s right to privacy and may well be subject to abuse.

AAS however noted that the ordinance bears a resemblance to the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 which was passed by the government just before the 14th General Election in 2018 but was subsequently repealed by the previous government.

“AAS strongly believed that under human rights laws, the government of the day owed an obligation and duty to protect the right to freedom of expression of its citizens.

“Laws aiming to restrict or curtail this particular right should and can only be imposed if these restrictions are provided by law, written in clear unambiguous terms and language, which leaves little or no doubts on its ambit and application and prohibitions.

“These laws should only be passed and imposed when it becomes strictly necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate aim; protection of national security, public order, public health or morals, or the rights of others,” he said.

AAS thus expressed concerns that this decision by the government to push through this ordinance was a step backwards.

“All relevant stakeholders must be consulted before any legislation is introduced during the period of the Emergency Ordinance, especially where fundamental liberties under the Federal Constitution appear to be eroded,” he reiterated. — DayakDaily