Malaysia is using new powers under emergency rule to increase jail time for spreading what authorities call fake news about the coronavirus pandemic or the emergency itself, sidestepping the usual route through Parliament.
The government says tougher penalties are needed to fight off mounting misinformation about the pandemic, which has hit Malaysia harder than most of its neighbors.
Lawyers, reporters and rights groups fear the tougher penalties portend a crackdown on government critics, calling the measures “dangerous” and “draconian.”
Malaysia joins several other countries with similar regulations.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic more than a year ago, 17 countries have added or beefed-up penalties for “fake news,” according to the International Press Institute, often amid claims from critics of abusing the term to stifle honest dissent. Of the eight countries in Asia, four are in Southeast Asia alone. Malaysia makes it five.
“This is a trend that we’re seeing more and more, especially … associated with the rise in social media and the sort of proliferation of expression online,” said Matthew Bugher, Asia program director for Article 19, a British rights group that advocates for freedom of speech and information.
Devil in the details
Malaysia’s fake news ordinance sets a jail term of up to three years for publishing or sharing any “wholly or partly false” information about either the pandemic or a state of emergency that took effect in January. Jail terms can double for those who help fund the publication of that information. Fines for each offense top out at about $24,000 and $121,000, respectively.
Lawmakers had no say in the new rules as the state of emergency King Al-Sultan Abdullah decreed at Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s request suspended Parliament until August 1. The government announced the new rules Thursday and put them into force Friday.
Public backlash has been swift and strong.
Lawyers and rights groups say they are alarmed both by the details of the order and by the lack thereof. They say the rules are missing a clear definition of fake news and in effect let authorities ignore the standards for prosecuting an alleged crime set out in the country’s Evidence Act.
“That means it would be very easy for them to basically charge anyone under this law,” said Ding Jo Ann, an adviser to Malaysia’s Center for Independent Journalism.
By imposing fines and jail time on anyone who refuses to give passwords or encryption codes to authorities investigating related cases, the ordinance “will create a climate of fear,” Lawyers for Liberty, a local rights group, said in a statement.
The Bar Council of Malaysia told local news outlet Free Malaysia Today that the ordinance lets authorities ignore several fair trial rules, making it a “highly dangerous piece of legislation which has the potential to be abused.”
State-run news outlet Bernama also reported that authorities cannot be sued over how they enforce the ordinance, even for any mistakes they make “in good faith.”
Controlling the narrative
Bugher said the wide berth the new rules give the government to define fake news is a recipe for abuse.
“It sort of allows the government to be the final arbiter of truth. And what we see regularly is that when the governments are given the power to decide what is true and what is false, those powers usually end up in the targeting of government critics,” he said.
Muhyiddin’s government has plenty of those, said Ding, who worries the new rules have more to do with “controlling the narrative” than fighting fake news.
“This government has faced tremendous criticism from the very day they took office, from the manner in which they took office, and henceforth every single day of how they have conducted themselves. People are very critical of the way they have handled or mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.
Muhyiddin was appointed prime minister by the king in February 2020 after a sudden shift in political alliances brought the sitting government crashing down, bringing him and his cabinet to power without an election. When Muhyiddin asked the king for the state of emergency, to help him rein in a COVID-19 surge, many saw a prime minister with shrinking support in Parliament desperate to hold on to power by averting the threat of a snap election.
Despite early success keeping the pandemic at bay, Malaysia has now racked up the third-most infections in Southeast Asia, with more than 320,000 confirmed cases.
The prime minister’s public relations office did not answer VOA’s calls or respond to a request for comment by email.
The government defended the fake news ordnance at a press conference Friday.
Communications Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said existing laws were ill-suited to keep up with the spread of fake news on social media and that the new rules would make law enforcement more agile.
“Our interest is in fighting COVID-19 and we will do whatever it takes,” he said. “We take cognizance of the fact that we have to be fair, we have to be just in carrying out our duties.”
Fact from fiction
Ding said the government would be better off countering fake news by doing more to help Malaysians separate fact from fiction online and urging the social media giants to keep misinformation and disinformation from going viral.
Bugher suggested the government step up its own fact-checking and fact-sharing operations rather than risk stifling news that could actually help.
“What’s worrying about laws like these is that it can sometimes tamp down good-faith discussion of issues that need to be discussed, because if people don’t feel that they have the ability to say something wrong without going to jail then they’re not going to discuss matters,” he said.
“In the context of a pandemic, for example, you really want people to share concerns if they think there may be an outbreak or if you think that the government is not doing what it should to address an outbreak in a certain area,” he added. “These types of laws can really chill that type of speech.”