Malaysia yesterday tabled a wide-ranging Bill in Parliament that aims to deter the spread of fake news with fines of up to RM500,000 (S$168,000), or imprisonment of up to 10 years, or both.
The Bill targets fake news, which has been defined 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 Bill will be put up for a vote after a second reading in the current Parliament session, which ends on April 5. This should not pose any hurdles as only a simple majority is required to pass it. The ruling Barisan Nasional government has 131 MPs in the 222-member Parliament. A minimum of 112 votes are needed to pass the Bill.
The Bill is controversial as it allows legal action to be taken against any individual in any country, irrespective of the individual's nationality, as long as the content spread by that person relates to Malaysia or a Malaysian, and is deemed false.
The legislation also allows for action against those who reproduce or replicate such content substantially.
Heavy penalties under Bill
The definition of "fake news" is "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 maximum punishment is a fine of up to RM500,000 (S$168,000), or up to 10 years in prison, or both. The offence is applicable to anyone of any nationality, cutting across different formats and sharing platforms, no matter the information's place of origin, as long as the content is deemed as false and involves Malaysia or a Malaysian citizen. No appeal is allowed against the court removal order of the content if it is deemed as "prejudicial to public order or national security".
Under the court order of removal, any party that defies it would face a maximum fine of RM100,000, with a recurring RM3,000 maximum fine for every day the offence continues.
Companies are not spared. Executives of companies found to have committed an offence under this law can be jointly or separately charged by the court.
Those providing financial assistance that facilitates the offence are also liable to the maximum RM500,000 fine and 10 years in jail.
Those who publish fake news are to remove such content or face a fine of up to RM100,000, which can grow by up to RM3,000 for each day that the content stays up, after someone has been convicted. Even those who are financiers to the propagators of fake news are liable for punishment.
Last week, Deputy Communications and Multimedia Minister Jailani Johari said any report about scandal-plagued 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) that is not verified by the government is fake news.
At a meeting yesterday between Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak and foreign media representatives, he said the law is not about politics. "It (fake news) affects individuals, businesses. Not just politics. So, we have to protect them," said Datuk Seri Salleh. He said the proposed law was not related to 1MDB.
On paper, the Bill aims to deter the spread of fake news, particularly on social media platforms. But journalists and opposition politicians fear that it could be used to target them.
"This new law is more than just another layer of control by the government; it is a death blow to the sliver of democracy that we have," said Mr Steven Gan, editor-in-chief of the Malaysiakini news site.
Cabinet minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar told reporters that the upcoming law "is not aimed at silencing critics". But the government has drawn some flak for including cartoons and caricatures under the fake news umbrella.
"The day our comedians and cartoonists, parliamentary sketch writers and literary artists can be prosecuted for poking fun at public figures, you know that the government has lost the plot," said human rights lawyer Andrew Khoo.
An appeal against the order to remove the publication is allowed, but not if the content is deemed to be "prejudicial to public order or national security".
WHAT OTHERS ARE DOING
• GERMANY: Social media companies can be fined up to €50 million (S$81 million) for failing to remove "obviously illegal content" within 24 hours of receiving a complaint.
• ITALY: Individuals who publish or spread fake news online could be fined up to €5,000.
• THE PHILIPPINES: Creators and distributors of fake news could be fined or jailed. Public officials found guilty face fines and jail terms double that of ordinary citizens.
• RUSSIA: The publishing of fake news by social media companies could be a criminal offence punishable by fines.
• UNITED STATES: The Honest Ads Act seeks to require Internet firms to disclose details on political ads placed on their platforms, and to prevent foreign nationals from coming up with such ads.
• ISRAEL: A Bill to let the courts order social media firms to remove incendiary online content is in the initial stages of being passed.
• QATAR: It has set up a government website to debunk online rumours and counter fake news.
• CHINA: A website to report leaks, fake news and illegal online activities by military personnel has been set up.
• INDONESIA: A police unit has been formed to monitor social media for misinformation. Its mandate includes disseminating information related to public order as well as educating users on pro-social usage of social media.
• CANADA, ITALY, FINLAND: Students are being taught in schools to spot fake news and read news critically. Finnish officials are also being trained to respond to fake news.
• SWEDEN: Students will soon learn how to recognise reliable sources. The government also wants to stop taxing ad revenue for daily newspapers and periodicals, to make print media more competitive.
• US: The National Science Foundation supports projects like Claimbuster, an automated live fact-checking tool used during the 2016 US presidential election.