KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said on Wednesday (Apr 19) free speech is thriving in his country, more so than other nations in the region, but "false and fake news" have become a plague.
"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," he said during his keynote address at the 16th Asia Media Awards in Kuala Lumpur organised by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA).
"But what I can tell you, is that there is more than enough criticism to go round. And if you look online and on social media … well, it’s like the Wild West out there!"
Najib said Malaysia is "much more open to (its) citizens exercising their right to voice their opinions - for or against any party - than most other countries in the region" and that the press is vital to this.
However, the Prime Minister said "fake news" had become a problem, taking aim at "former leaders talking about Malaysia going bankrupt" and "a well-known foreign newspaper (taking) to printing complete lies about the government."
Najib has come under fire from former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has been a vocal critic ever since controversy erupted surrounding state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
In 2015, the Wall Street Journal reported officials were investigating the alleged flow of some US$700 million through entities linked to 1MDB into Najib's personal bank accounts. The Prime Minister has since been cleared of any wrongdoing in Malaysia, with authorities saying the money in his bank accounts was a donation from the Saudi royal family.
Najib said the media have a duty 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," he said.
"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."