The legislation provides for a fines of up to $123,000 and six-year jail sentences for anyone publishing or disseminating misleading information. It makes online service providers liable for third party content. And it has extra-territorial reach as fake news generated outside the country is subject to criminal penalty if either the country of Malaysia or Malaysian citizens are affected.
Opposition lawmakers argued that the law was an assault on free speech and is intended to silence critics of the government in an election year. They succeeded in getting the proposed prison term reduced from 10 years, but ultimately lost the vote in the lower house.’
“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.
“This bill is a weapon to close the truth so that what is false can be upheld as true, and what is true can be reversed as false,” said legislator Lim Guan Eng. “This is something very dangerous for our country.”
For the last three years, political debate in Malaysia has focused on the bankruptcy of 1MDB, a state-backed investment fund, set up by Prime Minister Najib Razak. Discussion was further inflamed when a mysterious payment of some $731 million was discovered in the personal bank account of Najib.
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Najib has denied any wrongdoing in both instances. Since the emergence of the scandal, Najib has fired the attorney general and used existing powers, including sedition and defamation laws, to charge opposition legislators and journalists.
Critics of the proposed new law claim that it is deliberately defined in vague terms. The government says that courts will have have the final say.
Last month, deputy communications minister Jailani Johari, said that any information about 1MDB that has not been verified by the (Malaysian) government “is deemed as fake news.” His boss, Salleh Said Keruak, this week partially retracted that. He said that simply mentioning the U.S. Department of Justice probe into 1MDB and U.S. attempts to recover $1.7 billion of assets, would not be an offense, but linking Najib to a specific dollar amount could be.
“Malaysia’s ‘fake news’ bill is a blatant attempt by the government to prevent any and all news that it doesn’t like, whether about corruption or elections,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of NGO, Human Rights Watch. “The proposed law uses draconian penalties and broad language in an audacious and unprecedented effort to control discussion of Malaysia worldwide.”
Malaysia is scheduled to hold general elections no later than August this year, though Najib could call for them to be held earlier. Malaysia has been governed by the same Barisan Nasional coalition since independence in 1957. Najib’s UMNO party is the largest component of the coalition, but it lost the popular vote at the 2013 election.