Malaysian 'fake news' legislation condemned as attempt to silence dissent

Malaysia's government proposed new legislation Monday to outlaw fake news and punish offenders with a 10-year jail sentence, a move slammed by critics as a bid to crack down on dissent ahead of a general election.

With prime minister embroiled in corruption scandal and election coming, opposition cries foul over law

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak, seen in the city of Putrajaya of Dec. 22, 2017, is seeking another term in office despite damning corruption allegations. (Lai Seng Sin/Reuters)

Malaysia's government proposed new legislation Monday to outlaw fake news and punish offenders with a 10-year jail sentence, a move slammed by critics as a bid to crack down on dissent ahead of a general election.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has been dogged by a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal involving an indebted state fund, and rights activists fear the new law could be used to criminalize news reports and critical opinions on government misconduct. A general election must be held by August but is widely expected to begin in the next few weeks.

The anti-fake news bill, which must be approved by parliament, calls for penalizing those who create, offer, circulate, print or publish fake news or publications containing fake news with a 10-year jail term, a fine of up to 500,000 ringgit ($165,000 Cdn) or both.

The bill defines fake news as "any news, information, data and reports which is, or are, wholly or partly false whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas." It covers all mediums and extends to even foreigners outside Malaysia as long as Malaysia or its citizens are affected.

"This is an attack on the press and an attempt to instil fear among the [people]" before the general election, opposition lawmaker Ong Kian Ming tweeted.

The proposal comes at a particularly sensitive time, with the country due to hold a general election later in the year.

Government officials have said the law is needed to protect public harmony and national security. They have accused the opposition coalition of using fake news as a key weapon to win votes and warned that any news on the indebted 1MDB state fund that had not been verified by the government is fake.

The U.S. and several other countries are investigating allegations of cross-border embezzlement and money laundering at 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), which was set up and previously led by Najib to promote economic development, but which accumulated billions in debt.

The U.S. Justice Department says at least $4.5 billion US was stolen from 1MDB by associates of Najib, and it is working to seize $1.7 billion taken from the fund to buy assets in the U.S., potentially its largest asset seizure ever.

Najib, who denies any wrongdoing, has fired critics in his government and muzzled the media since the corruption scandal erupted three years ago.

Gerrymandering also alleged in re-election bid

Support for Najib's ruling coalition has dwindled in the last two elections. In 2013, it lost the popular vote for the first time to the opposition. Yet analysts say Najib is expected to win a third term due to infighting in the opposition, unfavourable electoral boundary changes and strong support for the government among rural ethnic Malays.

Critics say the anti-fake news bill will add to a range of repressive laws — including a sedition law, a press and publications act, an official secrets act and a security act — that have been used against critics, violated freedom of expression and undermined media freedom. A coalition of human rights and civic groups also has expressed concern that the government is rushing through the legislation, without consulting key stakeholders or releasing details in advance for public scrutiny.

"Malaysia has a long and troubling track record of using its legal books to silence dissent," James Gomez, Amnesty International's director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement. "It is no coincidence that this law has been tabled with general elections just around the corner. We are already seeing how the government is closing the space for public debate ahead of the polls."

The Asia Internet Coalition, which counts Apple, Facebook, Google and Yahoo among its members, said fighting false information must be a collaborative effort between governments, the news industry and the tech industry.

"We believe that prescriptive legislation designed to control the exchange of information will not adequately address the issue of false news effectively since discerning whether information is 'true' or 'false' can be highly subjective and risk compromising access to information and legitimate exchange of ideas," the AIC has said in a statement.

Other Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore and the Philippines, have also proposed laws to clamp down on fake news.