The act of publishing or disseminating fake news relating to COVID-19 or the Emergency proclamation is now a crime with effect from Friday (12 Mar) under the Emergency (Essential Powers) (No. 2) Ordinance 2021.
Published in the Federal Government Gazette on Thursday, Section 2 of the Ordinance defines fake news as “any news, information, data and reports, which is or are wholly or partly false relating to COVID-19 or the proclamation of Emergency, whether in the forms of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas”.
Those found guilty of creating, publishing or disseminating fake news relating to COVID-19 or the Emergency proclamation could face a fine up to RM100,000, or a jail term of up to three years, or both.
In the case of a continuing offence, individuals may be subject to a further fine of up to RM1,000 for every day during which the offence continues after conviction.
In addition, the Ordinance states that the court may order any publication deemed to be fake news to be removed in 24 hours.
Failing to do so will result in a fine not exceeding RM100,000, with up to RM3,000 added for every day the directive is not followed.
“The law applies to any person involved in the dissemination of fake news both within the country and abroad, regardless of nationality, given that the fake news in question affects Malaysia or a Malaysian citizen,” it said.
Geramm: Fake news should be combatted through fact-checking initiatives, not oppressive legislation
Gerakan Media Merdeka (Geramm) — a coalition of media practitioners and supporters of press freedom in Malaysia and across the Southeast Asian region — expressed concern over the government’s move to gazette such an Ordinance.
In a statement on Thursday, Geramm said that it is alarming that such a law was not drafted by elected parliamentarians and passed through a Dewan Rakyat sitting, given the suspension of Parliament during the period.
“On the surface, the regulations may appear to be agreeable. However, with no clear definition of ‘fake news’, we are concerned over possible abuse that may arise as a consequence,” it pointed out.
The Ordinance, said Geramm, should not be used as a tool to silence, pressure or bully dissidents.
It reiterated its stand to “fight fake news with facts, not Acts”, supporting fact-checking initiatives in place of legislation.
CIJ: Criminalising fake news under Ordinance grants Govt “unfettered powers” to “undermine our fundamental rights” to free speech and expression
The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) said it is “deeply shocked and appalled” by the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government’s decision to criminalise “fake news” under the new Emergency Ordinance.
Its executive director, Wathshlah G. Naidu in a statement on Thursday called on the government to stop using the state of Emergency to stifle any criticism of the current administration.
“Without the necessary parliamentary checks and balances, the unfettered powers given to the current administration under the Emergency Proclamation foretells the continued attempts by this government to use any means possible to undermine our fundamental rights and freedoms,” she said.
The introduction of specific elements of the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 — repealed by the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government in 2019 — into the Ordinance is “opportunistic”, Wathshlah added.
She also highlighted how “fake news” is not clearly defined in the law, which opens up a real possibility of abuse through arbitrary arrests, investigations and punitive actions being taken against the alleged offender.
“We anticipate further surveillances and invasions of our privacy, arbitrary censorships of critical and dissenting media reports, and thus, attacks on media freedom, and disproportionate crackdowns on legitimate speech such as dissent and misinformation,” said Wathshlah.
The government should thus withdraw the Ordinance supposedly targeted at criminalising fake news, as it will go against the fundamental norms of freedom of expression and speech as enshrined in the Federal Constitution.