Contradicting, inconsistent statements by the Communications and Multimedia ministers and ministry showed that the reasons of JASA RM85.5million allocation may not be as they claimed. Let’s fact check their statements over the past few days.
Statement 1: ‘Jasa would not be politically motivated as it was fully committed to engaging Malaysian from all races and religions to better develop the nation’
Fact check: Mohd Puad Zarkashi, UMNO Supreme Council member: ‘the function of JASA is political’
Statement 2: ‘The spread of fake news that divides society, is one of the greatest challenges affecting us today. JASA has a role to play in establishing a united country through the dissemination of accurate and authentic information’.
Fact check: JASA distributed propaganda books on 1MDB, denied the firm had ‘lost money’ and accused Dr Mahathir of ‘twisting’ statements to university students in 2017. Amongst other untruths, JASA also stated that DOJ’s 1MDB filing was a civil case which cannot prove criminality.
Statement 3: ‘The allocation would go towards recruiting and training qualified officers in social and digital communication’
Fact check: When the government revived the unit in July 2020, the deputy minister noted that JASA would hire 500 out of its former 1,000 staff.
To tackle fake news, the government could have adopted any of the 3 following measures or the combination of them, which are much more effective.
One, the government should proceed with the establishment of the Malaysian Media Council which was paused due to the Sheraton coup and expand its function to curb fake news. This is because the council is comprised of independent media scholars and experts who are more qualified to combat fake news. It is also worth noting that the draft budget for the council is RM 7 million, >12 times lower than the budgeted allocation to JASA.
Two, the government could have issued grants or incentives to assist the entrance of fact checking media similar to CNN and further develop the current fact checking site SEBENARNYA.my.
Three, grants could also be in place to expand existing programmes to improve public media literacy.
However, despite calls from opposition MPs to proceed with the council (https://mediacouncil.my/), the government chose to revive JASA in July instead. JASA is clearly not an independent unit but a potential Perikatan Nasional (PN) propaganda digital machinery to disseminate pro-government fake news.
It is worth noting that the Barisan Nasional (BN) government allocated RM 30 million to JASA and the department was later abolished under the PH government. The PN government revived JASA in July 2020 and proposed to increase the allocation to RM 85.5 million in 2021. This allocation is almost 3 times the allocation in BN, made in light of the Covid 19 crisis, when RM50 million is allocated to payment for frontliners.
Given the tremendous consequence of disinformation, efforts should be in place to curb, rather than setting aside huge budget to encourage disinformation to further some politicians’ interest.