The federal government issued the ordinance on 12 March under the exceptional powers it awarded itself exactly two months earlier in a decree proclaiming the state of emergency and banning parliament from sitting on public health grounds.
Similar to a controversial 2018 law opposed by RSF at the time and finally repealed by the previous government, the ordinance allows governmental authorities, judicial authorities and police to demand the withdrawal of any information about the state of emergency or Covid-19 that they arbitrarily consider to be “wholly or partly false.”
The publication of such information with “intent to cause, or which is likely to cause fear or alarm to the public, or any section of the public” is punishable by three years in prison and a fine of 300,000 ringgits (20,000 euros).
As well as those who produce it, any individual involved in disseminating, distributing, circulating, printing or even financing the “fake news” also faces the possibility of imprisonment. And this also applies to persons not living in Malaysia and who are not Malaysian, giving the ordinance extraterritorial effect.
Monopoly of truth
“From now on, the government dictates the truth about the pandemic and state of emergency, with the result that any information it deems unfavourable is threatened with disappearance by force or self-censorship,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “This emergency ordinance confirms the turn to authoritarianism by Muhyiddin Yassin’s government, which is shamelessly assuming the monopoly of the truth. We call on the government to repeal this ordinance as the previous coalition government did with a similar piece of legislation.”
The ordinance makes the dissemination of information directly subject to the goodwill of the authorities – police or judicial. Under article 6, they can demand the deletion of any content whose accuracy they dispute. Under article 7, any person who believes they have been target of “fake news” can ask a judge to order its removal, which must be carried out within 24 hours to avoid a heavy fine. The ordinance also allows the authorities to take down content themselves.
The powers of the judicial police are expanded significantly without the provision of any safeguards. No warrant is required to arrest a person suspected of publishing or helping to publish “fake news” (articles 16 and 17). The police can also access nearly all private data, included encrypted data.
No appeal possible
The only significant exceptions to all these draconian provisions are the Malaysian government itself, the police and certain judges, who are exempted by article 27. Furthermore, there can be no appeal against any demand by the government for content removal.
The authorities already demonstrated a determination to impose their own, official truth on their handling of the pandemic last August, when two Australian journalists working for Al Jazeera, Drew Ambrose and Jenni Henderson, were refused the renewal of their work visas because they had worked on an Al Jazeera report about a wave of arrests of migrant workers in the course of efforts to combat the pandemic. Al Jazeera’s bureau was also searched.
Malaysia is ranked 101st out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index but the many press freedom violations since Muhyiddin Yassin took over as prime minister in March 2020 are likely to impact negatively on its ranking when the 2021 Index is published next month.