Malaysia’s government Monday pushed a law through parliament that makes “fake news” punishable with a maximum six-year jail term despite an outcry from critics worried it will be used to stifle dissent before elections.
The law targets foreign as well as local media, and is seen in part as an effort to silence criticism of the scandal surrounding sovereign wealth fund 1MDB that has rocked the administration of Prime Minister Najib Razak.
The election is expected within weeks and Najib is battling to win a third term in office at the head of the coalition that has led Malaysia for over six decades.
After a debate spanning much of Monday and last week Thursday afternoon, parliament – which is dominated by the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition – voted in favour of the new law.
The law originally proposed a maximum prison sentence of 10 years and fine of 500,000 ringgit ($130,000) for publishing what authorities deem to be fake news, but the government lowered the jail term to six years following a storm of criticism.
“This law is not intended to restrict the freedom of speech, but to restrict the dissemination of fake news,” said minister Azalina Othman Said.
But opposition Members of Parliament were not convinced, criticising the law’s heavy penalties and its potential to limit free speech.
“This bill … is a weapon to close the truth so that what is false can be upheld as true, and what is true can be reversed as false,” said Lim Guan Eng of the Democratic Action Party.
“This is something very dangerous for our country.”
The law will still have to be debated in the senate, though it is expected to be passed with more than half of the senate filled with Barisan Nasional members.
After this, it will have to be sent to the King for his royal assent before it can take effect.
The new law has sparked widespread anger from activists, press freedom groups and the opposition, who believe it is more aimed at cracking down on dissenting voices than safeguarding the public from false information.
Before the law was passed, Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, condemned it as a “blatant attempt by the government to prevent any and all news that it doesn’t like, whether about corruption or elections”.
He said it “uses draconian penalties and broad language in an audacious and unprecedented effort to control discussion of Malaysia worldwide”.
The law covers any information that is deemed to be “wholly or partly fake”.
It includes several examples, such as a blogger publishing a report known to be false; someone sharing information on social media they know to be false; and someone giving a speech containing information they know to be untrue.
Malaysia is one of several countries in Asia turning to such legislation, emboldened by US President Donald Trump’s fulminations against “fake news”, but activists warn authoritarian regimes will use the laws to target opponents.
Malaysia ranks 144th out of 180 countries in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index.