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Malaysia 1MDB scandal

Media on notice as Malaysia proposes 10 years jail for publishers of ‘fake news’

The law, which covers digital publications and social media, also applies to offenders outside Malaysia, including foreigners, as long as Malaysia or a Malaysian citizen were affected

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 March, 2018, 2:29pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 March, 2018, 10:39pm

Malaysia’s government on Monday proposed new legislation to outlaw fake news with a 10-year jail term for offenders, a move slammed by critics as a draconian bid to crack down on dissent ahead of a general election.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has been dogged by a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal involving an indebted state fund, and rights activists fear the new law could be used to criminalise reports on government misconduct and critical opinions.

A general election must be held by August but is widely expected in the next few weeks.

The anti-fake news bill, tabled for parliamentary approval Monday, calls for penalising those who create, offer, circulate, print or publish fake news or publications containing fake news with a 10-year jail term, a fine of up to 500,000 ringgit (US$128,000) or both.

The bill defines fake news as “any news, information, data and reports which is, or are, wholly or partly false whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas.”

It covers all mediums and extends to even foreigners outside Malaysia as long as Malaysia or its citizens are affected.

“This is an attack on the press and an attempt to instil fear among the (people)” before the general election, opposition lawmaker Ong Kian Ming tweeted.

Government officials have said the law is needed to protect public harmony and national security. They have accused the opposition coalition of using fake news as a key weapon to win votes and warned that any news on the indebted 1MDB state fund that had not been verified by the government is fake.

The US and several other countries are investigating allegations of cross-border embezzlement and money laundering at 1MDB, which was set up and previously led by Prime Minister Najib to promote economic development, but which accumulated billions in debt.

The US Justice Department said at least US$4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB by associates of Najib, and it is working to seize US$1.7 billion taken from the fund to buy assets in the US, potentially its largest asset seizure ever.

Najib, who denies any wrongdoing, has fired critics in his government and muzzled the media since the corruption scandal erupted three years ago.

Malaysia suspended one newspaper, The Edge, in 2015 and blocked other websites for publishing stories critical of Najib’s role.

A deputy minister was quoted in Malaysian media last week as saying that any news on 1MDB that had not been verified by the government was “fake”.

Support for Najib’s ruling coalition has dwindled in the last two elections. In 2013, it lost the popular vote for the first time to the opposition.

Yet analysts say Najib is expected to win a third term due to infighting in the opposition, unfavourable electoral boundary changes and strong support for the government among rural ethnic Malays.

Critics said the anti-fake news bill will add to a range of repressive laws, including a sedition law, a stiff press and publications act, an official secrets act and a security act, that have been used against critics, violated freedom of expression and undermined media freedom.

A coalition of human rights and civic groups also expressed concern that the government was rushing through the legislation, without consulting key stakeholders and releasing details in advance for public scrutiny.

Governments elsewhere in Southeast Asia, including Singapore and the Philippines, have proposed laws aimed at clamping down on the spread of “fake news”, moves decried by media rights advocates.

Associated Press, Reuters