KUALA LUMPUR - The move by the Malaysian government to use its emergency powers to outlaw fake news has triggered widespread criticism from the opposition as well as lawyers and media groups.
Unlike the Anti-Fake News Act that was repealed in 2019 by the previous Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration, the Emergency (Essential Powers) (No. 2) Ordinance 2021 zeroes in on claims relating to Covid-19 or the proclamation of emergency.
The ordinance was already in effect on Friday (March 12) after being gazetted the day before, as the state of emergency invoked in January by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin allowed the government to bypass Parliament. The government justified the state of emergency as necessary to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
Tan Sri Muhyiddin has not convened the federal legislature since defections from his ruling Perikatan Nasional coalition two months ago raised doubts about his parliamentary majority.
"This draconian attempt to muzzle criticism of its handling of Covid-19 is yet more proof that the emergency has nothing to do with the pandemic but is being abused as a lifeline for the Muhyiddin government whose legitimacy is in doubt," Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) organising secretary Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad told The Straits Times.
The Setiawangsa (Kuala Lumpur) Member of Parliament was among several opposition lawmakers who criticised various provisions in the law which indemnifies authorities from any suit or prosecution while enforcing it. Instead, enforcers have wide powers to seize property, make arrests and access private data.
"The main concern is it empowers the state to define what is true and what is fake, enabling essentially the persecution of any dissent. This is reminiscent of the last years of Najib Razak before he lost the 2018 election, where regime-preservation trumped all other considerations," said Dr Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow from the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
"The ordinance will have a chilling effect on criticism of the convenient emergency that forced a sudden halt on parliamentary democracy," he added.
Lawyers expressed concerns related to the "rule of law", for example, how the ordinance supersedes the Evidence Act.
"If an authorised officer comes to your house and simply takes your documents to be used as evidence, you cannot question the manner in which they obtain it, and whether it was done illegally," Malaysian Bar president Salim Bashir was quoted as saying by FreeMalaysiaToday news site.
The ordinance provides for a fine of up to RM100,000 (S$32,600) and three years' jail for producing fake news "with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause fear or alarm to the public, or to any section of the public", and "in the case of a continuing offence, to a further fine" of not more than RM100,000 daily.
Parties who provide "financial assistance" intended for "committing or facilitating" such fake news are also liable for a penalty of up to RM500,000 and six years' imprisonment.
Press freedom advocates called for the ordinance "not to be used as a tool to silence, pressure or bully parties with an opposing view".
"The situation also poses an added difficulty for the media to carry out a check and balance function, if the law is abused to protect certain parties," said Gerakan Media Merdeka, a journalists' group. "We reiterate our stand as previously declared in our call against the repealed Anti-Fake News Act, to fight fake news with facts, not Acts."
The government defended the ordinance Friday, pointing out that it did not have the necessary powers to counter falsehoods especially those online.
It said that the Communications and Multimedia Act was enacted 23 years ago and needed to be updated.
"It is not meant for politics. Just Covid-19 and the emergency," Communications and Multimedia Minister Saifuddin Abdullah told a press conference.
Malaysia's de facto Law Minister Takiyuddin Hassan said anyone claiming that the government sought an emergency declaration because it lost its majority in Parliament has violated the fake news ordinance.
Malaysia began its national Covid-19 immunisation programme a fortnight ago, with the aim of vaccinating at least 80 per cent of its adult population.
But studies, including a Health Ministry survey, have shown that up to a third of Malaysians are sceptical about the vaccines, especially because they have been developed swiftly.