The bill has been finalized by a special committee – consisting of representatives of the government, police, National Security Council and Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) – which Prime Minister Najib Razak appointed on 30 January after he and his government declared war on “fake news.”
But Malaysian legislation, in particular, article 8A of the 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act and article 233 (1) of the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act, already penalizes the dissemination of false news and information.
“It is not the government’s job to determine the truth of the reporting that is the product of journalistic work,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“Parliament must roundly reject this bill because it contributes nothing new to the fight against the dissemination of deliberately false information and would pose an additional threat to media freedom, which is already drastically suppressed by existing laws. The concept of ‘fake news’ used in this bill is much too vague to be subject to such heavy penalties.”
Inter alia, “fake news” is defined as “disinformation which could threaten religious and racial harmony.”
Although the Malaysian bar has voiced reservations about the bill, the authorities think the current penalties are not enough. MCMC chief operating officer Mazlan Ismail has called for a tenfold increase in the penalties. In this case, what the bill defines as “fake news” would be punishable for a fine of 500,000 ringgits (128,000 US dollars) and ten years in prison.
The government already began to transform itself into a “Ministry of Truth” when it created a “news checking” online platform called Sebenarnya.my (“In Truth” in Malay) in March 2017. The authorities use the platform to denounce and “correct” what they consider to be fake news.
RSF shares the concerns of Malaysia’s human rights defenders about the bill, which could lead to more arrests of journalists and government critics just months before elections scheduled for this summer.
Malaysia is ranked 144th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.