Malaysian parliament has passed a law banning all “fake news” circulating in the country. The Anti-Fake News Bill was passed by the majority of parliament, with 123 members voting in favor and 64 members voting against. The law would reportedly carry punitive measure of up to 500,000 ringitt, or almost $130,000, and jail time of up to six years. This bill is not exclusive toward Malaysian citizens — it extends to foreigners passing through, if the “fake news” affects Malaysian citizens.
The concerns with the passing of the bill have generally been presented in two areas: the upcoming elections and the question of who decides what exactly is fake news. The Malaysian general election will arrive in August, 2018, and the timing of this move by the Malaysian government has drawn suspicion from many. There is a fear that the law will be abused, and that news outlets will be denied criticism toward those in the government. The executive director of Humans Rights Watch’s Asia Division, Brad Adams, said that, “Activists fear the fake news bill could be used against critics of gerrymandering or other elements of the electoral process.”
The government defines “fake news” as “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false.” However, debate is centered around two parties insisting that their side is correct, and the other side is false — so who decides, especially in the context of an election, what is fake news and what is truth? The Malaysian government insists that these issues will be dealt with by courts and not the government, though some remain skeptical.
Malaysian Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department and parliament member, Azalina Othman Said, said that, “The exclusive nature of this Bill [is] to deal with the dissemination of news [that] is not true.” She added that the bill has a “wide scope because [of] the current technology” and how that technology perpetuates fake news. She argues that bills such as this are necessary, as technology evolves; she points towards previous Malaysian bills, like the Publications Act of 1984, and the Multimedia act of 1998, perhaps insinuating that this is just an extension of those existing statutes.
All of those things tie into the general, international criticism regarding the freedom of the press and the freedom of speech. Malaysia is the first country in the world to pass a law like this, specifically regarding the “fake news” epidemic during the dawn of the information age. Other countries have found alternate ways to lawfully control the mass influx of communication and information of the 21st century — Iran, for example, has recently banned a popular social media platform used for rallying protests together. Burma/Myanmar, like many countries, use state-sponsored media outlets to push certain, specific stories.
Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press.