The Malaysian government has proposed a law to fight “fake news” with a jail term of 10 years if found guilty. Governments in several countries, strengthened by US President Donald Trump’s protest against “fake news” are considering such legislation.
But rights groups warn that authoritarian regimes are likely to use the new law to crack down on argument. Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak has been targeting critics in politics and the media who have accused him over huge sums that were looted from sovereign wealth fund 1MDB. The proposed law, which was introduced in parliament on Monday, fueled fears the government is seeking to intensify a crackdown before elections, which must be called by August but are widely expected soon. Opposition MP Charles Santiago said the bill was “a powerful weapon for the government to silence argument in the country.” “It is timed for the elections and to silence discussions on 1MDB,” he told AFP.
The proposed law said fake news was becoming a “global concern” and the new legislation is aimed at safeguarding the public, as well as ensuring the right to freedom of expression. Any person found guilty of creating or disseminating what authorities deem to be fake news can be punished with a maximum 10 years in jail or a fine of up to 500,000 ringgit ($130,000). The bill also allows for anyone who breaks the law outside the country with what authorities deem to be “fake news” concerning Malaysia to face punishment in Malaysia. Despite the concerns, cabinet minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar insisted the law “will not be abused”, adding, “It is not aimed at silencing critics.” The bill must be approved by a majority in the 222-seat lower house and also in the upper house and this is likely as both chambers are government-controlled. It needs to go through several readings in parliament before it passes. Malaysia is ranked 144th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.