Malaysia has officially made ‘fake news’ illegal, after approving a law that makes anyone found guilty of the crime liable for a hefty fine and a six-year spell in prison.
Critics fear the new law will be used to stifle opposition to the government ahead of August’s general election.
Prime Minister Najib Razak secured a majority in the Malaysian parliament for the Anti-Fake News bill on Monday. Early drafts of the bill had initially set out 10-year prison terms for offenders but that was later downgraded to a 500,000 ringgit ($123,000) fine and six years in jail. The law defines fake news as “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false.”
Seeking to allay the fears of those who are worried the government will use the bill to crack down on dissent ahead of the general election, Law Minister Azalina Othman Said told the parliament that fake news cases would be handled through an independent court. “This law aims to protect the public from the spread of fake news, while allowing freedom of speech as provided for under the constitution,” the official said in a statement cited by Reuters.
Offenders accused of spreading fake news from outside Malaysia can also be charged under the bill, which covers both digital publications and social media.
Prior to the vote, David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, took to Twitter to urge the Malaysian government to rethink the bill. Kaye claimed the definitions of fake news in the bill are “extremely vague” and said the punishment was “seemingly disproportionate” to the crime.
Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, expressed fears for the fate of democracy in the country following the decision to put the law forward. “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,” Adams said in a statement on the group’s website. “The proposed law uses draconian penalties and broad language in an audacious and unprecedented effort to control discussion of Malaysia worldwide.”
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