FREEDOM of expression and media in Malaysia will be further suppressed say rights groups as the country’s parliament debates a ‘fake news’ Bill ahead of this year’s General Election.
A majority of MPs in Malaysia’s Dewan Rakyat, the Lower House, seek to pass a law which would impose lengthy jail time and hefty fines for creating, publishing or distributing what the government deems to be fake news. It would also allow the government to pursue legal action against people overseas.
After widespread criticism of the move by rights groups and debate in the parliament on Thursday, lawmakers reduced the maximum penalty from 10 to six years’ imprisonment and reworded the crime of “knowingly” creating fake news to “maliciously” doing so.
The proposed fine of MYR500,000 (US$130,000) will still be imposed, however. The Bill is expected to be passed next week as the Dewan Rakyat does not sit on Fridays.
The country’s de facto minister for law Azalina Othman said while addressing the Dewan Rakyat that “fake news is bad news … stories that have been fabricated or changed and spread without a conscious consideration of the impact it will have on people, will hurt the country.”
Azalina has previously said that “the Bill does not restrict the right to freedom of expression of the people as provided under the federal constitution in any way.”
Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose administration has been accused of major corruption, including the controversial 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, has claimed to be a victim of online slander and “fake news.”
Malaysia’s Deputy Communications Minister Jailani Johari this month accused The Economist, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and other international media organisations of publishing “fake news” regarding 1MDB after a superyacht linked to the sovereign wealth fund was seized by Indonesia in Bali last month.
Malaysian opposition leader Dr Mahathir Mohamad criticised the fake news Bill in a blog post, stating that journalists and opposition politicians would be forced to self-censor under the legislation, which would “shut down all government critics in the elections”.
Local and international rights groups have also lined up to call upon the government to dump the Bill, arguing that Malaysia’s media already faces heavy restrictions. In 2017, Malaysia was ranked 144 out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.
The International Commission of Jurists’ Senior International Legal Advisor Emerlynne Gil said that “given past experience in Malaysia, it is highly likely to be used to suppress legitimate criticism of the government on matters of opinion or where the facts are contested.”
Journalists, cartoonists and activists have long arrested, detained and charged under the country’s existing Sedition Act and Penal Code. “The penalties are wildly disproportionate,” added Gil. “Indeed, under international standards, imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty for such offences.”
Seven Doraisamy of Suara Rakyat Malaysia said that the Bill was “open to abuse” by Najib’s government which “maintains a poor track record in upholding freedom of expression”.
An online petition against the Bill created by local civil society organisation Aliran on Tuesday has already gathered more than 12,000 signatures.
“The government’s justification that this bill is to promote national security is laughable. The authorities already have an arsenal of laws dating back to the colonial era to do that,” said Deputy Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists Robert Mahoney in a statement.
“This legislation is designed to intimidate independent and muckraking journalists at a time when allegations of widespread corruption are swirling around members of the political and business establishment,” he said.
Human Rights Watch said the Bill was a “blatant attempt by the government to prevent any and all news that it doesn’t like, whether about corruption or elections”. The New York-based watchdog’s Asia director Brad Adams said the legal changes would be “unprecedented” in Malaysia.