DANISH national Salah Salem Saleh Sulaiman has become the first person to be convicted under Malaysia’s new anti-fake news law.
A local court on Monday sentenced the 46-year-old to a week in jail and 10,000 ringgit (US$2,552) fine for inaccurate criticism of Malaysian police on social media. Salah opted to spend a month in jail because he could not pay the penalty.
On April 21, he was charged with spreading false news for posting a video to YouTube which accused police of taking 50 minutes to arrive following the drive-by shooting of Palestinian lecturer Fadi al-Batsh in Kuala Lumpur.
Police refuted the claim, stating that they took just eight minutes to respond to the shooting. Charges against Salam said he had “with ill intent, published fake news through a video on YouTube.”
“Malaysia’s first conviction under its ‘fake news’ law shows authorities plan to abuse the new provision to criminalise critical reporting,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative in a statement.
“The dangerous precedent should be overturned and this ill-conceived law repealed for the sake of press freedom.”
Salah, who was unrepresented at the court hearing, pleaded guilty, but said the video was posted in a “moment of anger” and he did not mean any harm. “I agreed I made a mistake … I seriously apologise to everybody in Malaysia, not just in the Malaysian police,” he said.
Malaysia is among the first few countries to legislate policing of fake news. Critics say the law is aimed at curbing dissent and free speech ahead of Malaysia’s May 9 general election. Offenders can be fined up to 500,000 ringgit ($128,000) and face a maximum of six years in jail.
Malaysia’s inspector-general of police, Mohamad Fuzi Harun, said a day after the shooting that their records showed a distress call was received at 6.41 AM and a patrol car arrived at the scene eight minutes later.
The Anti-Fake News Act defines fake news as “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false” and included features, visuals and audio recordings.
The law covers digital publications and social media and also applies to offenders outside Malaysia, including foreigners, if Malaysia or a Malaysian citizen are affected. Local media organisation Malaysiakini has filed a suit seeking to declare the law unconstitutional.
Governments elsewhere in Southeast Asia, including Singapore and the Philippines, have also proposed laws aimed at clamping down on the spread of “fake news”, to the dismay of media rights advocates.
Additional reporting from Reuters.