Malaysia passed a law this week that prohibits the dissemination of “fake news,” according to the Associated Press. But critics worry that the move will silence dissenters ahead of elections.
Offenders of the new law would face a maximum six years in jail and a fine of up to $128,000, according to the AP.
The law defines fake news as “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false.” This applies to digital news, social media and those who try to share “fake news” inside and outside the country, according to Reuters.
A heated debate ended with 123 lawmakers voting for the bill and 64 against it.
“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, Reuters reported.
Some lawmakers criticized the bill, though, saying it would lead the country closer to a dictatorship since its leader can control what is deemed fake news.
“They also fear the bill, which covers all media and extends even to foreigners outside Malaysia, could be used against critics of gerrymandering or other aspects of the electoral process after parliament last week swiftly approved controversial new constituency boundaries for the elections, which are due in August but widely expected soon,” according to the Associated Press.
David Kaye, who works as the U.N.’s special rapporteur of freedom of opinion and expression, said on Monday that he wants the country to reconsider the bill.
“I understand this #FakeNews bill in #Malaysia is moving (very) fast. I urge the Government to reconsider the bill & open it up to regular and genuine public scrutiny before taking any further steps,” he tweeted.
James Gomez, Amnesty International's Southeast Asia and Pacific Division director, released a statement that said the law is intentionally vague and will end the right to free speech in the country.
"The Malaysian lawmakers didn't wait long to pass a vaguely worded, catch-all bill that can be — and will be — used to crack down on peaceful government critics. This bill cynically uses new Twitter jargon to pursue an old policy: criminalising free speech," he said. "The law which could be implemented within days doesn't only impose tough penalties and gives arbitrary arrest powers for police but also allows charges to be brought against other countries' citizens. It's an overt assault on freedom of expression."
Charles Santiago, a lawmaker from the Democratic Action Party, told The New York Times that the law is meant to instill fear.3 comments on this story
But the government, he said, won't totally silence truth seekers.
“These new laws are designed to create fear and make people think there’s no way to stop the prime minister from winning re-election,” he said. “But the government cannot say that everything is fake. Truth still matters in Malaysia.”
According to Reuters, other countries in Southeast Asia are considering bills to ban fake news, such as Singapore and the Philippines. However, human rights activists are speaking out against these moves.