The Malaysian authorities continue their relentless drive to shrink freedom of expression. On Monday, April 2, 2018, Malaysian lawmakers passed the anti-fake news law as 123 parliamentarians voted in favour of the bill.
The act was subsequently passed by the Senate on April 3 and came into force on Wednesday. Under the new legislation, anyone who publishes or circulates information that is “wholly or partly false” could be severely punished with a fine of up to RM 500,000, a prison sentence of up to 6 years, or both.
This further criminalisation of speech, already subject to a wide variety of arbitrary, restrictive and highly punitive legislation, should be a cause of alarm for everyone.
The definition of “fake news” in the new law is broad and vague, and therefore, open to be used to stifle free speech. It includes “any news, information, data and reports which 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 term “fake news” was popularized by US President Donald Trump, who has used it to condemn publications and broadcasters which are critical of him. Different leaders from countries who appear to be similarly intolerant of criticism, including Myanmar and Venezuela, have followed suit, and started to use this term. It is worrying that in Malaysia, the authorities are trying to hide behind the term “fake news” to crack down on critics.
As a whole, this act seems designed to silence those who dare to speak out, in particular, those who express their views on social media platforms. The new bill could be used to target peaceful government critics, activists, journalists, opposition leaders and members of the general public.
Another layer of arbitrariness is added by designating every offence under the act as sizable, allowing police to arrest suspects without warrant, and the law is not content with those who express “fake news” but extends to those who abet or provide “financial assistance”, thus providing the government with wide-ranging tools to clamp down on those whose views it disapproves of and their associates.
With its provisions on extra-territorial jurisdiction, the legislation even punishes foreigners or Malaysians living abroad who publish what is deemed “fake news” that might affect the Malaysian state or Malaysian citizens. The timing is, to say the least, suspicious – the authorities, unfortunately, have a record of intensifying their crackdown on critics as elections approach on May 9.
Is it okay to restrict freedom of expression? Yes, in certain, limited circumstances it is. For instance, speech that encroaches on other people’s rights, endangers national security or public health may be restricted even under human rights law. But such restrictions must be minimal – they must be stated clearly in the law, they must apply only for legitimate purposes such as those just mentioned and must be strictly necessary and proportionate.
But instead of being clear and narrow, the anti-fake news act is deliberately “catch-all.” Instead of applying only to legitimate, narrow purposes, its main target is to stifle free speech and can be easily applied to punish honest mistakes or matters of opinion. Instead of being necessary and proportionate, it is necessary only to protect the government’s political interests and is out of all proportion.
And just be absolutely clear – no, blogs, vlogs, Facebook posts or newspaper articles that make government ministers feel uncomfortable do not fall within any criteria for legitimate restrictions under human rights law.
So where do we go from here?
As we approach the general elections, Amnesty International is calling on all parties and candidates to commit to stopping this law in its tracks.
In continuing to push forward to build a more progressive and compassionate society, the anti-fake news act is not only going to diminish freedom of expression in Malaysia, but also limit the exchange of information.
Although this bill was ostensibly brought to the table to protect “national security” and the public’s interest, we will enter a time when fewer people might share news and views and more people will think twice before questioning those in power.
If a simple Facebook post can land you in jail for several years, who is going to be brave enough to share their views anymore? The matter is made even worse by the vaguely worded law, which means no one will know for sure what is and what is not “fake news”.
Freedom of expression is already arbitrarily restricted in Malaysia through other laws, such as the Sedition Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act. Now, the authorities have yet another weapon to use when it comes to silencing critics, even though just one of these pieces of legislation is one too many for a country that is meant to respect human rights.
Anti-fake news legislation is also being considered or implemented in other countries, such as Germany, France, the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia. If this persists in Malaysia, the chilling effect will be felt widely. This is an opportunity for election candidates to make a change and exercise their leadership by proposing to voters that the law will review and repeal this repressive law. – The future of freedom of expression, and the protection of human right defenders and peaceful government critics depend on it.
GWEN LEE is the interim executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia.
This article was originally published on malaysiakini.com.