Malaysia probes dozens over misinformation on coronavirus

A woman wearing a protective face mask crosses a bridge in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Feb 19, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

PUTRAJAYA (AFP) - Malaysia is investigating 27 people for allegedly spreading misinformation about the new coronavirus, officials said on Friday (Feb 21), as governments across Asia crack down on false claims about the epidemic.

The virus has so far killed more than 2,200 people and infected over 75,000, mostly in China, and spread to dozens of countries and territories including Malaysia, which has 22 confirmed cases.

It has triggered an explosion of false information online, from vastly inflated death tolls to vaccine conspiracies and misleading bat soup videos.

Several Asian countries have made arrests over the spread of falsehoods, and Singapore this week ordered Facebook to block an anti-government page in the city state that it says was peddling misinformation about the pathogen.

Of the 27 people under investigation in Malaysia, four have already been charged in court and another four were expected to be charged on Friday, officials from the communications ministry and prime minister's department told AFP.

No details were provided about the misinformation they are accused of spreading. Officials warned a broader crackdown was planned.

"If you are found to be involved in any act (of) spreading lies... we will go after you and we don't care who you are," Mr Mohamed Hanipa Maidin, Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's Department, told reporters.

Earlier this month, a Malaysian journalist was charged for making statements that could cause public alarm over social media posts related to the virus, including one in which she raised concerns about the arrival of Chinese tourists on a cruise ship.

Officials have warned that false information about the virus could be "inflammatory" in Muslim-majority, multi-ethnic Malaysia, where race and religion are considered sensitive topics.

Some observers have raised concerns that overzealous crackdowns could curb civil liberties.

"There is a thin line between the government taking proactive steps against (misinformation) and the government infringing on rights to free speech," Mr Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, a political analyst from BowerGroupAsia consultancy, told AFP.

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