Authorities in Malaysia have drafted a bill criminalizing the publishing of “fake news” by media organizations through hefty fines or up to ten years in prison.
The legislation, known as the Anti-Fake News 2018 bill, proposes fines of up to $128,000 and up to ten years in jail for the spreading of “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false.”
“The proposed Act seeks to safeguard the public against the proliferation of fake news whilst ensuring the right to freedom of speech and expression under the Federal Constitution is respected,” the bill reads.
Content that falls under the government’s remit includes written journalism, visual media, and even radio or audio recordings, and also includes content published on social media or by foreigners visiting the country if the news should involve Malaysia or its citizens.
Human rights groups immediately criticized the bill, denouncing it as an attempt by the government to silence its critics.
“The vague and broad definition of ‘fake news’, combined with severe punishments and arbitrary arrest powers for police, shows that this is nothing but a blatant attempt to shield the government from peaceful criticism,” said Amnesty International’s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific in a statement.
Eric Paulsen, co-founder of Malaysian human rights group Lawyers for Liberty, told the BBC that the government was trying to push the bill through before the upcoming general election, which takes place this August.
“The bill is 100% intended to muffle dissent … the punishment is extremely high and what amounts to fake news has been loosely defined,” Paulsen said. “It also looks like they are rushing through the bill … before the elections. It’s likely that it will be passed.”
Further restrictions on the media would represent another shift towards authoritarianism under Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has overseen legislation reducing freedom of speech and other human rights under pressure from hardline Islamist groups.
In 2015, New York-based Human Rights Watch reported on how authorities had effectively criminalized freedom of expression through the use of “ambiguously-worded laws [that] are arbitrarily enforced to stifle opposition to the government or the Muslim majority.”
The term “fake news” originated in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election as analysts tried to find a justification for Donald Trump’s victory. However, the term was soon co-opted by groups across the political divide and is now used by millions around the world to describe news that is deceptive or not entirely truthful.
Some European countries including France, Italy, and Germany have all recently proposed or passed similar legislation, while many of the world’s more autocratic states already have such bans in place.