THE newly-elected Malaysian government says it would not restrict press freedom or take action against any inaccurate news reports unless it is a threat to national security.
Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad said on Sunday that the anti-fake news law brought by the previous administration will be given “proper” definition, making it clear to the media and the public what is fake.
“In the previous regime, we felt restricted. There were pro-this or pro-that newspapers, but we will not block their reports so long as it brings (a good) purpose,” Dr. Mahathir said during a briefing session with state news media outlets RTM and Bernama.
“The fake news law will be given a new definition so that the public and media outlets will know what is fake news and what is not fake,” Mahathir said.
Dr Mahathir said although the new government supports the freedom of the press, reporting by the media should be done within certain limits.
“If they (media) intentionally make reports to cause chaos or tension, we will take action with specific laws,” he said.
Abolishing the anti-fake news law was one of Dr Mahathir’s campaign promises, but his latest comments point to a re-defining of the controversial law, rather than removing it altogether.
Former prime minister Najib Razak’s government approved the Anti-Fake News 2018 bill last month, which set out fines of up to 500,000 ringgit (US$126,646.40) and a maximum six years in jail for violators.
Dr Mahathir was himself accused of fake news, after authorities said they were investigating him for false claims that his plane was sabotaged ahead of the May 9 election.
Mahathir has been prime minister previously, for 22 years starting in 1981. He used security laws to put his political opponents behind bars and his critics say he restricted free speech and persecuted political opponents.
The current law defines fake news as “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false” and includes features, visuals and audio recordings.
It 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.
Other countries in Southeast Asia, including Singapore and the Philippines, are considering how to tackle “fake news” but human rights activists fear that such laws could be used to stifle free speech, according to Reuters.
Malaysia is among the first few countries to introduce a law against it. Germany approved a plan last year to fine social media networks if they fail to remove hateful postings.
Malaysia already has an arsenal of laws, including a colonial-era Sedition Act, that have been used to clamp down on unfavourable news and social media posts.