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Malaysia is crushing free speech with a new fake-news law

The country's lower house on Monday passed making fake news illegal. Expected to get swift senate approval, it makes fake news punishable by jail time.

Fake news is a problem, and it's growing both in reach and influence. Malaysia is fighting fake news by introducing a law to make it illegal, but experts say that new law is a dangerous one. 

Ostensibly to stop disinformation from influencing local politics, the country's lower house of parliament on Monday passed a bill, "Anti-Fake News Bill 2018," outlawing fake news, according to local media. It's expected to be approved by the senate this week.

MALAYSIA-POLITICS-MEDIA

The Malaysian government has put up advertisements for its new fake news law.

Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images

The bill makes not only creating fake news illegal, but also sharing it. A Malaysian citizen could be punished, then, for simply retweeting fake news. If found guilty, Malaysians can be sentenced to prison for up to six years and fined up to 500,000 Malaysian ringgit (which roughly converts to $130,000). Plus, it's not a domestic law -- it applies to those outside the country who are responsible for fake news.

If this sounds suspicious to you, you're not the only one.

"This legislation is problematic on so many different levels," David Kaye, clinical professor of law at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, said to CNET. "The definition of fake news is so broad it seems like the government could decide anything could be fake news. On top of that, it has these extraordinarily harsh penalties."

Malaysia has a history of curtailing freedom of expression and freedom of press. The country last year was ranked 144 out of 188 listed countries in Reporters Without Borders' Worldwide Freedom of Press Index. Violent and sexual imagery is banned from Malaysia's internet and TV broadcasts, but reports from organizations like Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Open Observatory of Network Interference show various sites have been shut down for political reasons.

Case study: A scandal erupted in 2015 around Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak when the Wall Street Journal reported that around $700 million in funds were transferred from a state-owned company to his personal bank accounts. Over 10 sites were taken down for reporting on this, according to EFF.

With the new fake news law, journalists who wrote those stories and citizens who shared them online could face legal punishment and even jail time. That includes international journalists.

"[The new law] applies to non-Malaysian citizens internationally if 'fake news' published overseas involves Malaysian citizens," said a Khairil Yusof, team coordinator at Sinar Project, an organization that defends digital rights of citizens in Malaysia. "For example the WSJ journalists that broke the story [that alleged Prime Minister Razak's corruption] face the possibility of being jailed and fined when visiting Malaysia."

The government's current dissent crusher of choice is the Sedition Act, which punishes anyone inciting rebellion against the state, said Kaye, who also acts as UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression. A fake news law is likely to be used the same way.

"When you have a law that is just so open ended, it makes it very easy for the government to use it against all sorts of persons for all sorts of reasons without a whole lot of constraints."

The law comes as fake news, despite being most closely associated with Russia's interference in the US' 2016 election, has proven to be a global issue. A South African fake news network was set up in 2016 with aims of stoking racial tension in the country to distract from the president's alleged corruption. Meanwhile, many in Italy feared fake news would inform the country's early-March election. Ireland will hold a referendum on abortion in April, and politicians have pressed the need for an official, independent fake news debunker.

It's politically timely here, with a Malaysian presidential election to be held sometime before August 24. Still, human rights groups have been swift to condemn the new law.

"The Malaysian lawmakers didn't wait long to pass a vaguely worded, catch-all bill that can be -- and will be -- used to crack down on peaceful government critics," said Amnesty International's Director for Southeast Asia, James Gomez, in a statement. "This bill cynically uses new Twitter jargon to pursue an old policy: criminalising free speech."

Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams last week called the bill a "blatant attempt by the government to prevent any and all news that it doesn't like."

Meanwhile, law professor Kaye is concerned that the fake news law isn't actually about fake news at all.

"If you look to Myanmar, the law in Myanmar punishes people for criticizing the military or military rule," he said. "I put these all within the same basket of problems. It's not fake news, it's clamping down on dissent more generally."

Rejecting claims of censorship, Malaysia's communications and multimedia minister, Salleh Said Keruak last week espoused a "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" message.

"If we feel that we are not involved in spreading fake news then we should have no qualms about accepting this law as it is for the benefit of our children and everyone as a whole," he told reporters.

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