Malaysia has tabled a wide-ranging Bill in Parliament to target 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 with fines of up to RM500,000 (S$168,000) or imprisonment of up to 10 years or both on Monday (26 March).
Malaysia tables controversial fake news bill which imposes fines of up to RM500,000 or imprisonment of up to 10 years or both
The Bill will be put up for a vote after a second reading in the current Parliament session, which ends on 5 April.
The ruling Barisan Nasional government has 131 MPs in the 222-member Parliament while only a minimum of 112 votes are needed to pass the Bill.
The Bill is highly controversial. 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. It also allows for action against those who reproduce or replicate such content substantially.
Those who publish fake news are demanded to remove such content or face a fine of up to RM100,000, that can grow by up to RM3,000 for each day that the content stays up, after someone has been convicted. Those who are financiers to the propagators of fake news are also liable for punishment.
Deputy Communications and Multimedia Minister Jailani Johari said last week that any reports regarding scandal-plagued 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) that is not verified by the government is fake news.
Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Keruak told foreign media representatives at a meeting on Monday that the law is not about politics, saying, "It (fake news) affects individuals, businesses. Not just politics. So we have to protect them."
Though on Paper the Bill aims to deter the spread of fake news, particularly on social media platforms, journalists and opposition politicians fear that it could be used to target them.
Steven Gan, editor-in-chief of Malaysiakini news site, said, "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."
Cabinet minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar told reporters that the upcoming law is not aimed at silencing critics, however, the Government has drawn some flak for including cartoons and caricatures under the new Bill.
Human rights lawyer Andrew Khoo said, "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."
The Bill allows an appeal against the order to remove the publication is allowed. However, if the content is deemed to be prejudicial to public order or national security, it will be not allowed.
People, companies, and their executives, who share content on social media, knowing it is false, can also be punished.
The bill allows for negative information to be suppressed immediately, lawyers say.
Mr Khoo said, "This allows comments to be immediately censored first, and then arguments about its truth entertained only later during trial."
The proposed punishment under the Bill is also significantly higher than under current laws on false information. Under the Printing Presses and Publication Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act, the highest fine imposed is RM50,000 ($16,858) and imprisonment of up to three years.