MALAYSIA on Thursday repealed its controversial Anti-Fake News Act, barely five months after the law was passed and widely criticised for imposing hefty fines and jail time.
The law, passed in April, stipulated a maximum RM500,000 (US$123,000) fine and up to six years’ jail for offenders.
The Act sparked a backlash from critics who accused former Prime Minister Najib Razak of an insidious plot to clamp down on free speech as accusations on graft and mismanagement mounted against his leadership before the election in May.
But on Thursday, the country’s Dewan Rakyat (lower house) approved a motion to repeal the Act after a debate which lasted more than three hours, according to Free Malaysia Today.
The abolition is in line with some of the campaign promises made by Pakatan Harapan (Coalition of Hope), the political pact led by statesman Dr Mahathir Mohamad whose stewardship has been credited for Najib’s fall from grace in the May 9 polls.
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In his winding-up speech of the debate, Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Mohd Hanipa Maidin said the Act was unnecessary as other civil laws could curb the spread of fake news.
“If the laws have weaknesses, we should be amending those laws, not enacting new ones,” he said.
Former law minister-turned-opposition member Azalina Othman Said, who set up the short-lived law, insisted that no political persecution had taken place while it was in effect, a claim Mohd Hanipa refuted.
“If we had waited a bit longer, I am sure many would have been subjected to persecution under the law. Don’t draw conclusions too quickly,” Hanipa said.
Mohd Hanipa pointed out that during the election campaign, Dr Mahathir was investigated under the Anti-Fake News Act when he claimed someone had tried to sabotage his plane.
“Yes, there may not have been any political persecution, but there was a political investigation.”
Rights groups celebrated the move to the repeal the Act.
“This is a law that was clearly designed to silence criticism of the authorities and to quell public debate – it should never have been allowed to pass in the first place,” Teddy Baguilat, a board member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said in a statement to Reuters.
US President Donald Trump has often used the term fake news to condemn news reports or organisations whose findings he disputes or that are critical of him. The term has also quickly become part of the standard repertoire of leaders in authoritarian countries.
Malaysia is among one of the first countries in the world to introduce a law against fake news.
Other Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore, Philippines and Indonesia, are considering how to tackle fake news. Rights activists worry that anti-fake news laws could be used to stifle free speech.