The image of Donald Trump thrusting a finger accusingly at the camera and uttering the words “fake news” is one of the abiding images of his presidency. It is one I would rather forget.

His use of the “fake news” mantra to brush aside any media report he didn’t like, no matter how credible, has proved popular with leaders around the world who wish to discredit the work of troublesome journalists. This has helped fuel distrust of the media. That, of course, was their intention.

More worrying, however, has been the use of “fake news” as a justification for sweeping laws that suppress media reports or stifle dissenting views. Such laws have been passed in other parts of Southeast Asia. Now, it seems, it is Hong Kong’s turn.

Last week Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor revealed laws she wants to see passed. Among them is legislation she said is needed to tackle issues arising from the city’s civil unrest in 2019, including “disseminating fake news.”

Digital channels at that time were awash with misinformation and lies. Supporters of both political camps used these tactics as they battled to control the narrative. They doctored videos, made false allegations and spread wild rumours. But I would not dignify any of this with the word “news.’

The spread of misinformation on social media is a global problem, whether it involves orchestrated attempts to swing elections, state-sanctioned cyberbullying of government critics, or bogus advice on how to guard against Covid-19. Different strategies are being considered and adopted.

The problem with “fake news” laws is the near certainty they will suppress the media or be used to target the opposition. Who decides what is fake? This can be subjective. Some of the government’s own statements would be regarded by its critics as “fake news.”

Such laws can easily be used to stifle reports the government does not approve of. They can become the legal manifestation of Trump’s pointed finger.

Some governments in the region have either passed “fake news” laws or adapted old ones for this purpose. Such an approach is always controversial. There are other, better, ways of tackling the problem.

These include increasing public awareness and improving news literacy. Better use should be made of fact-checking services such as those set up by universities and media organisations. The government should be working constructively with social media companies and making more effective use of its own channels to counter misinformation. All of these options are preferable to passing yet another law.

The media already faces a legal minefield. There have long been strict defamation laws and contempt of court restrictions. Old colonial laws, such as “uttering seditious words” have recently resurfaced. And new privacy legislation is on the way.

The broad national security law passed last year raises fresh concerns for journalists, as does the new police definition of “media” and the emergence of legal risks over the use of government databases. A fake news law would add to the burdens already facing the industry.

Lam’s administration seems to think that all the city’s problems can be solved by passing laws and imposing penalties. Controversial rules are much easier to put in place now there is no opposition in the legislature. But lawmaking is not the only – or necessarily the best – solution.

Hong Kong needs a strong, independent media. It is an asset that sets our city apart from other places in the region. Journalists have a responsibility to meet high professional standards. They are trained to seek the truth, to be fair and balanced, to substantiate facts and to put the news in context.

The media should be part of the solution. Reliable sources of news are more important than ever, precisely because of all the misinformation available online. Rather than passing laws likely to curb the media’s ability to do its job, the government should embrace and support the profession. Journalists are not, as Trump claimed “the enemy of the people.” They serve the people by striving to bring them the truth.