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Photo: AP/Wilfredo Lee

Amnesty International calls Malaysian fake news bill ‘assault on freedom of expression’

Watchdog says the bill is ‘nothing but a blatant attempt to shield the government from peaceful criticism’


By Jessica Lin

The thought of having to spend 10 years in jail is enough to send shivers down one’s spine.

That is probably why Putrajaya’s proposed anti-fake news bill has been met with alarm by lawyers and global observers since its reveal.

Carrying a maximum jail term of 10 years or a maximum fine of RM500,000 (US$129,065), or both, the proposed law puts perpetrators who spread fake news on the same end of the spectrum as those who commit serious crimes such as kidnapping.

In a statement, human rights organisation Amnesty International said the bill was an “assault on freedom of expression“.

The group’s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, James Gomez, said: “The vague and broad definition of ‘fake news’, combined with severe punishments and arbitrary arrest powers for police, shows that this is nothing but a blatant attempt to shield the government from peaceful criticism.”

He also called for the bill to be “scrapped immediately”.

“It is deeply disturbing that the Malaysian authorities are using the catch-all term ‘fake news’ as an excuse to crack down on critics. The bill combines the worst of the cheap propaganda coming from the West and the repressive laws and policies in the East.

“With both Singapore and the Philippines considering their own ‘fake news’ legislation, we call on all countries in the region to refrain from following this dangerous trend,” he added.

Opposition lawmaker Ong Kian Ming also criticised the bill, writing on Twitter that the bill would be “an attack on the press and an attempt to instill fear among the rakyat (people) before GE14”.

Lawyers quoted by Malay Mail also expressed surprise at the bill, calling the proposed punishments “severe”.

Some have also warned that the bill could affect people who use social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook.

According to New Straits Times, the Malaysian Communications Multimedia Commission found that most Malaysians (84 per cent) received fake news via WhatsApp, while eight per cent received unverified news content via Facebook.