Malaysia has moved one step closer towards passing a controversial anti-fake news bill after the Malaysian cabinet approved the draft bill and announced it would table it in parliament sometime next week.
According to a statement from the country’s de facto law minister Azalina Othman Said, the bill was drafted to “protect the people from fake news and becoming victims of fake news”.
“However, the Bill does not restrict the right to freedom of expression of the people as provided under the federal constitution in any way,” she added. “At the same time, the bill also sends a clear message that the government will not compromise with anything that can disrupt public order and national security.”
While the exact details of the bill have yet to emerge, the state-run Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission has proposed that people found guilty of disseminating fake news be fined up to $127,930 (RM500,000) and sentenced to up to 10 years in jail.
The Malaysian cabinet’s approval is the culmination of a sustained government assault on critical media outlets that has often drawn comparisons with President Donald Trump’s ongoing campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the US mainstream media.
During the launch of the ruling coalition’s online news platform therakyat.com in January, embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak blamed his coalition’s failure in 2013 to win back the two-thirds majority it first lost in 2008 on fake news, which he described as “a weapon for the opposition to attack us,” according to the Star Online.
Earlier this month, deputy minister of communications and multimedia Jailani Johari took aim at the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Economist, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and MSNBC for spreading fake news in an attempt to “damage the prime minister’s good name”.
But while the government claims the bill is in the public interest, critics say it is intended for the sole purpose of suppressing criticism of the ruling coalition ahead of the country’s fast approaching 14th general election.
“The idea is to scare people into thinking twice before they publish negative news,” James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at Australia’s University of Tasmania, recently told the South China Morning Post.
Malaysia currently sits in 144th place in the latest Reporters without Borders press freedom index, which ranks 180 countries according to the degree of freedom afforded to journalists working within those countries.
Critics of the draft bill point to recent cases of judicial harassment as evidence that the bill will likely be used for political ends.
In February, for instance, a district court fined artist Fahmi Reza $7,674 (RM 30,000) and sentenced him to one month in jail after he painted Najib as a clown and posted an image of the artwork to social media.
Reza was found guilty of producing content deemed “obscene, indecent, false, menacing, or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person”.
Meanwhile, co-founders of independent online news site Malaysiakini Steven Gan and Premesh Chandran are facing criminal charges over their coverage of the multibillion dollar scandal at the state fund 1MDB, from which Najib has been accused by various news outlets of stealing up to $700m. The prime minister continues to maintain his innocence and has labelled such allegations as fake news.
According to Phil Robertson, the deputy director for Human Rights Watch in Asia, local activists, rights groups and politicians need to stand up to the government to prevent further assaults on civil liberties.
“Now is the time,” he told South China Morning Post for civil society to “make noise, demand hearings, use social media and press the political opposition to stand up… make sure that the government knows they can’t attack sources of news as ‘fake news’ because such a determination is inherently subjective.