The Malaysian government has tabled an Anti-Fake News Bill to counter fake news in parliament which critics, including the opposition, fear will be used to crackdown on dissent ahead of looming polls.
“As the technology advances with time, the dissemination of fake news becomes a global concern and more serious that it affects the public,” the Bill reads.
“The proposed Act seeks to safeguard the public against the proliferation of fake news whilst ensuring the right to freedom of speech and expression under the Federal Constitution is respected.”
If this Bill passes, those found guilty of creating, publishing or disseminating fake news could face up to 10 years in jail and/or a fine of up to RM500,000 (US$127,960). A further fine not exceeding RM3,000 will be imposed for every day that the offence continues after conviction.
Examples of fake news offences listed in the Bill include giving a speech at a public place alleging that someone misappropriated funds collected for charitable purposes, knowing that the information is false.
Meanwhile, a draft of the Bill shows that the penalties will also apply to individuals regardless of their nationality, citizenship or location at the time of the offence as long as the fake news concerns Malaysia or if the person affected is a Malaysian citizen.
Examples like this have further stoked opposition fears that the new laws are being pushed through to be used against them or the media ahead of elections.
Cabinet minister and trained lawyer Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar told Channel NewsAsia that the bill was not targeting any specific group: “Well it’s not against the opposition, it’s against the people spreading false news and lies or defaming someone unnecessarily, causing a lot of unhappiness and pain.”
Prime Minister Najib Razak has been accused of misappropriating funds from state investment firm 1MDB. Those are claims the opposition has used against Mr Najib but that he has denied, saying the money found in his personal bank accounts were a political donation from the Saudi Royal family.
Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s Communications Director Fahmi Fadzil has called on Communications Minister Salleh Keruak to “promise he will not instil fear amongst media practitioners especially the foreign press with regards to the 1MDB scandal”.
At a meeting with the foreign media on Monday, Mr Salleh said: “(This fake news bill) has nothing to do with 1MDB … We’re more concerned with Malaysian individuals who are affected by the fake news and also some businesses. Don’t look at it from just a political perspective … When you have different views on 1MDB, it’s not fake news.”
When asked why the push for the Anti-Fake News Bill is so close to the general election, Mr Salleh said: “Whatever we do, people will interpret differently. But as far as we’re concerned, this needed to be urgently tabled because I think Malaysia needs it to protect themselves.”
Members of the public and human rights activists have also expressed concern that the Bill may infringe on freedom of expression.
In a statement on Wednesday, however, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Azalina Othman said the Bill does not do that but sends the message that the government would not compromise when it comes to matters concerning public order and national security.
“This Bill was drafted for the benefit of the general public to protect the people from fake news and becoming victims of fake news,” she said.
The minister said there would be a briefing session for MPs from ruling coalition Barisan Nasional as well as the opposition in the near future.
The Bill now needs to be debated in parliament but it is expected to pass given the ruling coalition controls the lower house.