Two changes to Malaysia's proposed fake news Bill

Commuters in front of an advertisement discouraging the dissemination of fake news, at a train station in Kuala Lumpur. The proposed law penalises those who maliciously create or spread such content.
Commuters in front of an advertisement discouraging the dissemination of fake news, at a train station in Kuala Lumpur. The proposed law penalises those who maliciously create or spread such content.PHOTO: REUTERS

Definition of offence and maximum jail term amended in response to feedback: Minister

Malaysia's proposed law against fake news will see two amendments - to the definition of an offence and the maximum jail term - MPs were told at the Bill's second reading in Parliament yesterday.

"Fake news is bad news... stories that have been fabricated or changed and spread without a conscious consideration of the impact it will have on people, will hurt the country," said de facto law minister Azalina Othman Said in her speech yesterday.

Datuk Seri Azalina told lawmakers the maximum jail term for an offence under the proposed law will be reduced from 10 years to six. She also said that the amendment would make it a crime for someone to "maliciously" create fake news, instead of "knowingly" create fake news as set out in the original draft of the Bill.

These changes, she said, are in response to criticism from interested parties, including members of the media, lawyers and non-governmental organisations.

The proposed maximum fine of RM500,000 (S$170,000) however, will be maintained.

Ms Azalina said Malaysia was not alone in seeking a law to curb fake news, naming a slew of jurisdictions that were considering similar moves.

"In Singapore, a Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods: Causes, Consequences and Countermeasures was formed to study the problem of fake news, types of offenders and their motives in spreading false news, as well as the impact. This includes the possibility of having a new law to curb false news," she said, adding that Germany had passed its anti-fake news law.

The debate will resume next Monday.

The Bill comes as the country gears up for a general election expected to be called within weeks, sparking claims from the opposition the new law will be used to muffle dissent.

The proposed law can be easily passed as it needs only a simple majority of the 222-member House, and ruling coalition Barisan Nasional has 131 MPs.

The Bill 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 legislation penalises those who maliciously create or spread such content.

Malaysia's National Human Rights Commission in its statement yesterday said it could not support the Bill since the law in its present form could be used to exert government control over the media.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2018, with the headline 'Two changes to Malaysia's proposed fake news Bill'. Print Edition | Subscribe