MALAYSIA’S parliament on Monday approved a law that imposes up to six years jail on those guilty of creating or distributing “fake news” maliciously, despite opposition from critics who say the move would curb free speech and dissent ahead of the upcoming elections.
Lawmakers from Prime Minister Najib Razak’s administration pass the Anti-Fake News 2018 Bill with a simple majority in parliament, setting out fines of up to RM500,000 (US$123,000) and a maximum six years in jail.
Before it was amended, the Bill had proposed jail of up to 10 years.
I maybe wrong but I think Malaysia is the world’s first to pass a law specifically on Fake News, to ban it outright, & criminalising it with heavy sentence. Not only a tragedy to us, but to the world because we gave the world a precedent and the phrase “fake news” legitimacy.
— Louis Liaw (@louisliaw) April 3, 2018
Despite the outcry from the opposition and rights groups, the government said the law would not impinge on freedom of speech as the cases would be handled through an independent court process.
“This law aims to protect the public from the spread of fake news, while allowing freedom of speech as provided for under the constitution,” Law Minister Azalina Othman Said told parliament, as quoted by Reuters.
Under the law, fake news has been defined as “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false” and includes features, visuals and audio recordings.
The law also covers digital publications and social media and will apply to offenders who “maliciously” spread “fake news” inside and outside Malaysia, including foreigners, if Malaysia or a Malaysian citizen were affected.
“The passage of this bill will have dire consequences for the press & social media users, among others,& will cast a shadow over efforts to report on gov misconduct in advance of general elections in the country.”said Mr Matthew Bugher, Head of Asia Programme for A19 @bughermk1 pic.twitter.com/0UFDPjlupO
— ARTICLE 19 Malaysia (@Article19Msia) April 2, 2018
Co-opted by US President Donald Trump, the term “fake news” has quickly become part of the standard repertoire of leaders in authoritarian countries to describe media reports and organisations critical of them.
The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, had earlier on Monday urged the government not to rush the legislation through parliament.
“I urge the government to reconsider the bill and open it up to regular and genuine public scrutiny before taking any further steps,” David Kaye said in a Twitter post.
the definitions are extremely vague, leaving excessive discretion for officials to define 'fake news', & the penalties are harsh, seemingly disproportionate. tabling to voting this quickly is, in my view, very problematic.
— David Kaye (@davidakaye) April 2, 2018
James Gomez, Amnesty International’s Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said the lawmakers did not wait long to pass a “vaguely worded, catch-all Bill that can be – and will be – used to crack down on peaceful government critics.”
“This Bill cynically uses new Twitter jargon to pursue an old policy: criminalizing free speech,” Gomez said in a statement.
You can say what you like but you should not hurt another person, because by doing that you are actually destroying the society. pic.twitter.com/C8vXFHqno0
— Mohd Najib Tun Razak (@NajibRazak) April 3, 2018
“The law which could be implemented within days doesn’t only impose tough penalties and gives arbitrary arrest powers for police but also allows charges to be brought against other countries’ citizens. It’s an overt assault on freedom of expression.”
In a blogpost, Malaysia’s Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak said the definition of fake news in the Bill is “clear” and “specific”, and that freedom of speech in the country would not be curtailed in line with the Federal Constitution.
“The only people who need to be afraid of our Anti-Fake News Bill 2018 are not those who convey honest opinions, and report conscientiously and truthfully according to proper journalistic protocols,” he said.
“And we will not stop calling out the people who would confuse the facts – of which we are certain – with the spin and deceit of people who would subvert democracy for their own selfish ends.”