Malaysia's lawmakers approved an anti-fake news law yesterday despite protests from opposition Members of Parliament and civil society groups that it would be misused to muffle dissent ahead of a general election expected within weeks.
The legislation, which carries punishments of up to six years in prison and a maximum fine of RM500,000 (S$170,000), was passed in Parliament with 123 votes for and 64 votes against after its second reading.
"This law is not intended to restrict freedom of speech but to restrict the dissemination of fake news," said de facto law minister Azalina Othman Said, who is overseeing the Bill's path into legislation.
The Bill will next be debated in the Senate, and is expected to be passed before the current Parliament session ends on Thursday. Once it passes both Houses, it will be gazetted into law after receiving the King's assent. The law - which makes it a crime for someone to maliciously create fake news - could be implemented within days.
"Activists fear the fake news Bill could be used against critics of gerrymandering or other elements of the electoral process," Mr Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
The law's broad coverage allows charges to be brought against other nationalities outside Malaysia, so long as the fake news involves Malaysia or a Malaysian citizen. It 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".
"The Malaysian government has no monopoly on the truth, but it is attempting to be the arbiter of what can and can't be said and written," Mr Adams said.
Defenders of the Bill argue that those without guilt should not fear the advent of the new law. "Only those who are already spreading or intend to spread fake news would oppose the need for this law," Datuk Seri Azalina said yesterday.
"When the Bill is brought forward in Parliament on the cusp of elections, it raises questions and doubts especially from the opposition," said political analyst Awang Azman Awang Pawi, a professor at Universiti Malaya. He added that the law could be misused as a political weapon to silence criticism against the ruling administration.
Ms Azalina, in her reply in Parliament, denied the law would benefit only the government, adding that the power to determine what constitutes fake news lies with the courts, not the government or the minister.
Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak said in his blog yesterday that Malaysia is not alone in finding such a law necessary, referring to countries like Singapore, the Philippines and Germany which "are considering or have introduced similar legislation".
The Malaysian government "will not hesitate to take the necessary steps ahead of our imminent election to ensure that the well of democracy is not irretrievably poisoned with lies, falsehoods, smears and supposition", he wrote.
- Additional reporting by Nadirah H. Rodzi