CIJ says ministry’s justification for Jasa revival irrational, failed to address public’s interest

CIJ Executive Director Wathshlah G. Naidu said any attempts by the government to counter misinformation or disinformation cannot undermine democratic guarantees and fundamental freedoms or come at the expense of funds that should instead be channelled for more productive means of battling Covid-19.  — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
CIJ Executive Director Wathshlah G. Naidu said any attempts by the government to counter misinformation or disinformation cannot undermine democratic guarantees and fundamental freedoms or come at the expense of funds that should instead be channelled for more productive means of battling Covid-19. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 10 — The Communication and Multimedia Ministry’s (KKMM) justification for reviving the defunct Special Affairs Department (Jasa) failed to address the public’s interest in demanding an academic and expert rationale, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) said today.

Noting that the need to address disinformation in response to Covid-19 updates was legitimate, CIJ Executive Director Wathshlah G. Naidu however noted that measures to counter misinformation and disinformation in the context of Covid-19 would require timely access to trusted scientific and verifiable sources of information. 

She said any attempts by the government to counter misinformation or disinformation cannot undermine democratic guarantees and fundamental freedoms or come at the expense of funds that should instead be channelled for more productive means of battling Covid-19.

“In the interests of accountability and transparency, we call on KKMM to provide a clear and credible rationale that would identify the scope of strategic responses and justify the need for such an inflated budget that comes at the expense of the public’s current medical and socio-economic needs and priorities.

“We urge the government to place the best interests of the peoples at the heart of Budget 2021 and not let its political agenda undermine the priorities,” she said in a statement here.

Wathshlah also pointed out that having any government or its apparatus being the single or preferred source of information or promoting a specific narrative was not desirable at all as it would dominate and adopt any current regime’s propaganda, likely forcing the public to search for alternative sources of information. 

Instead, she urged the government to further enhance its fact checking services such as Sebenarnya.my through collaboration with technology giants to filter out false news and promote information from credible sources.

In addition, she also implored the government to adopt a coordinated approach that would reduce the cost to be allocated in developing countermeasures that would promote disclosure of information, counter-narratives and mitigating responses to keep the public.

This would mean engaging more constructively and meaningfully with multi-stakeholders specifically the media, civil society organisations, academics, multilateral organisations and technologists, Wathshlah added.

Among other suggestions CIJ proposed were for the government to ensure allocations in the budget to provide the necessary support needed to strengthen the role of media and create an enabling environment that would promote media freedom and pluralism to ensure accurate and timely reporting.

Last but not least, CIJ also called for a stop to arbitrarily stiffing any public discourse or opinion by using archaic and repressive laws but to instead enact a federal-level Right to Information (RTI) law that would guarantee disclosure and access to information and influence healthy debates on matters of public interest.

In Budget 2021, the Perikatan Nasional government has allocated RM85.5 million to Jasa with the Communications and Multimedia Ministry defending its revival plan by presenting Jasa as necessary to counter Covid-19 misinformation and other fake news.

Jasa was dissolved in May 2018 after PH launched an austerity campaign in a bid to contain the national debt it inherited after winning the general election.

Prior to that, the BN government had allocated RM30 million for the unit in its Budget 2018.

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