Malaysia anti-fake news Bill: Clearer definitions of fake news needed, experts say

An advertisement with the slogan "sharing a lie makes you a liar" at a train station in downtown Kuala Lumpur on March 26, 2018.
An advertisement with the slogan "sharing a lie makes you a liar" at a train station in downtown Kuala Lumpur on March 26, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Lawyers and media professionals have urged the Malaysian government to clearly define what constitutes fake news in the Anti-Fake News Bill 2018.

Saying that the Bill has "far-reaching implications" if passed, Lawyers for Liberty executive director Eric Paulsen said in a statement that the draft was "extremely vague".

"The Bill criminalises fake news as defined by it to include any content 'which is wholly or partly false'," he said.

He also called for clearer definitions of the malicious falsehood involved, the severity level for fake news to attract criminal culpability, and the defences available to the accused.

Paulsen cautioned that the Bill could restrict freedom of speech, particularly from independent online media and dissenting voices.

University of Nottingham Malaysia media lecturer Gayathry Venkiteswaran acknowledged that fake news was a concern in many countries, citing its prevalence in the 2016 US presidential election.

However, she said it was shown that the percentage of those who were swayed by such information was far lower than expected.

"Instead of a law, we need to have more open discussions and step up media literacy," she said.

"There should have been public consultation, not just a limited group of people providing input in drafting the Bill."

Gayathry was also concerned about the proposed law's effect on journalists and news reporting.

Lawyer Syahredzan Johan said the Bill extended wider than just news, and covered information that was not traditionally viewed as news.

"A lot of parody and satire are 'false' because that is the nature of such works. Now, these may be criminalised as 'fake news'," he said.

Syahredzan also noted the clause that criminalised financial assistance given to those who spread fake news.

"Contribution by crowd-sourcing or fund-raising initiatives to pay off fines or damages will be made into a criminal offence," he said.

Both Syahredzan and Paulsen suggested that a parliamentary committee be set up to get more feedback on the need for the Bill and come up with mechanisms to address the fake news problem.