Controversial fake-news law comes into force in Malaysia

Fast-tracked Bill gets King's nod despite fears government will use it to muzzle opponents

KUALA LUMPUR • Malaysia's controversial Anti-Fake News Act came into force yesterday.

Prime Minister Najib Razak said the anti-fake news legislation received the nod from the Malaysian king and was gazetted yesterday, reported the New Straits Times.

The documents related to the Act have been uploaded on the Federal Gazette website, a check by Malaysiakini news site found.

The Bill was fast-tracked in Parliament by the government last week, despite criticism from opposition parties and political activists, who feared that it would be used to muzzle opinions the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition disagreed with.

There are also concerns that BN will use the law to stop criticism of it as the country prepares for a general election.

Germany passed anti-fake news laws in January, with the authorities given the power to fine social media giants up to €50 million (S$80 million) if they do not promptly remove illegal content from their sites.

Other countries, such as Singapore and the Philippines, are studying whether to enact their own anti-fake news laws.

The Bill was passed on April 2 in the Lower House of Parliament, with 123 votes for and 64 votes against, after its second reading.

The Malaysian legislation carries punishments of up to six years in prison, and a maximum fine of RM500,000 (S$170,000). The law also allows the government to seek an order for published articles to be removed and, if national security concerns were cited, the order cannot be challenged in court.

Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said, Malaysia's de facto law minister who oversaw the legislation, has said the law is not intended to restrict freedom of speech but to restrict the dissemination of fake news.

Datuk Seri Najib yesterday said freedom of expression and freedom of the press should be based on three main principles - accountability, truth and the local context, Malaysiakini reported.

He said: "It must be understood that the terms freedom of expression and freedom of the press should not be interpreted based on a universal or general interpretation moulded by the West, but instead, should be guided according to local culture and sensitivities.

"I would therefore like to summarise that there must be a limit to freedom of expression and freedom of the press, and it should not steered towards the spreading of fake or unverified news to the extent of sacrificing the bigger aspects of national security."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 12, 2018, with the headline 'Controversial fake-news law comes into force in Malaysia'. Print Edition | Subscribe