Malaysian opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad is under investigation for allegedly spreading fake news after claiming his plane was sabotaged.
The news about the investigation emerged less than a week before the general election is scheduled to held in the nation.
Fake news is not a new idea. Historically it can be traced back to the first century BC, when Octavian ran a campaign of misinformation against his rival Mark Antony. He portrayed him as a drunkard, a womanizer, and a mere puppet of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII.
Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy located in Southeast Asia. It consists of thirteen states and three federal territories. Executive power is exercised by the federal government and the 13 state governments. Federal legislative power is vested in the federal parliament and the 13 state assemblies. The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature, though the executive maintains a certain level of influence in the appointment of judges to the courts.
Mahathir bin Mohamad was the fourth Prime Minister of Malaysia. He served in office from 1981 to 2003. He is currently the longest-serving holder of that office. His political career spanned more than 70 years since he first joined a newly formed UMNO in 1946. When he was the Prime Minister, Malaysia experienced a period of rapid modernization and economic growth. His government initiated a series of bold infrastructure projects. He has remained a dominant figure in Malaysian political landscape having won five consecutive general elections and fending off a series of rivals for the leadership of UMNO.
During the second and third centuries AD, false rumours were spread about Christians claiming that they engaged in ritual cannibalism and incest. In the late third century AD, the Christian apologist Lactantius invented and exaggerated stories about pagans engaging in acts of immorality and cruelty, while the anti-Christian writer Porphyry invented similar stories about Christians.
In 1475, a fake news story in Trent claimed that the Jewish community had murdered a two-and-a-half-year-old Christian infant named Simonino. The story resulted in all the Jews in the city being arrested and tortured; fifteen of them were burned at the stake. Pope Sixtus IV himself attempted to stamp out the story, but, by that point, it had already spread beyond anyone's control. Stories of this kind were known as "blood libel"; they claimed that Jews purposely killed Christians, especially Christian children, and used their blood for religious or ritual purposes.
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The investigation into Mahathir follows legislation passed by Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak's government in April criminalising the dissemination of fake news. The parliament passed a law with maximum punishments of six years in prison and a 500,000 ringgit ($127,000) fine for anyone who “maliciously” creates and distributes false information related to the country or its citizens. The law applies to anyone inside or outside Malaysia, regardless of nationality or citizenship.
Those prosecuted under the law could be fined up to 500,000 ringgits ($127,00) and jailed for up to six years. Mahathir, who served as Malaysia's Prime Minister from 1981-2003, had intended to travel to Langkawi on April 27 to formally register his candidacy for the election.
“Prior to take-off, however, the plane's pilot discovered some damage to the aircraft, which resulted in the flight being cancelled. A subsequent government-ordered investigation into the incident, carried out by Malaysia's Civil Aviation Authority, found no indication of sabotage, instead concluding the aircraft had been unable to fly due to a minor fault related to one its wheels,” Aljazeera reported.
Azharuddin Rahman, chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority, described the damage as a "routine technical fault" following the probe.
"Allegations of sabotage against an aircraft are extremely serious and could impact the reputation of Malaysian aviation and the country as a whole," Azharuddin said.
Mahathir has said that he is not worried about the fake news investigation.
Last week a Danish man was handed a one-week jail term for spreading fake news, the first person to be punished under the legislation. He accused police in a YouTube video of responding slowly when a Palestinian Hamas member was shot dead last month.
Zaid Ibrahim, a former minister in charge of legal affairs, said the law was connected to the ongoing IMDB scandal, which has seen Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak accused of misappropriating massive amounts of money. "This law is necessary for Najib, but not the country. He needs this to put fear in people, that they can go to jail if they criticize him," he told CNN last month.
The decision to investigate Mahathir under the controversial fake news law further fuels the concern by critics that the law would simply be used to further specific political agenda. There are fears that this could be manipulated to silence critics in the run-up to the election.
This could be the attempt by the government to prevent any and all news that it doesn't like, whether about corruption or elections.
Our assessment is that leaders should be held accountable to a higher standard of integrity and ethics. However, it is important to be critical and analyse whether the present investigation is not politically motivated or aimed at destabilizing the upcoming elections.
We feel that a mere statement by any leader about a suspicion that he has does not constitute fake news. We should also be careful to note that expressing one’s opinion, especially when related to politics, should not be construed as fake news. However, leaders must also take the responsibility to ensure that their claims are backed by genuine fact.