Malaysia is using emergency powers to enact fake news law
Malaysia is using new powers under the Emergency Rule to extend prison terms for spreading fake news about the coronavirus pandemic or the emergency itself, bypassing the usual route through parliament.
The government says harsher penalties are needed to stave off the mounting misinformation about the pandemic, which has hit Malaysia harder than most of its neighbors.
Lawyers, reporters and human rights groups fear that the tougher sentences will mean crackdown on government critics and describe the measures as “dangerous” and “draconian”.
Malaysia joins several other countries with similar regulations.
Since the pandemic broke out more than a year ago, 17 countries have increased or tightened penalties for “fake news,” according to the International Press Institute, often on the basis of criticism allegations that they used the term to suppress honest disagreements. Of the eight Asian countries, four are in Southeast Asia alone. Malaysia makes it five.
“This is a trend we are seeing more and more, especially … with the rise of social media and the flow of opinions online,” said Matthew Bugher, Asia program director for Article 19, a UK rights group advocating for Freedom of expression and information.
Devil in the details
Malaysia’s Fake News regulation provides for up to three years’ imprisonment for “wholly or partially false” information about the pandemic or a state of emergency that went into effect in January is published or shared. For those who fund the publication of this information, prison sentences can double. The fines for each offense are approximately $ 24,000 and $ 121,000, respectively.
The legislature had no say in the new rules, as the state of emergency was imposed by King Al-Sultan Abdullah at the request of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, and parliament was suspended until August 1st. The government announced the new rules on Thursday and put them into effect on Friday.
The public backlash was quick and strong.
Lawyers and human rights organizations are alarmed by both the details of the order and the lack of it. They say the rules lack a clear definition of fake news and the authorities are ignoring 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 indict basically anyone under this law,” said Ding Jo Ann, an advisor to the Malaysian Center for Independent Journalism.
By imposing fines and jail time on anyone who refuses to disclose passwords or encryption keys to authorities investigating related cases, the regulation will “create a climate of fear,” Lawyers for Liberty, a local rights group, said in a statement .
The Malaysian Lawyers Council told local Free Malaysia Today news agency that the regulation allows authorities to ignore several fair trial rules, making it “a very dangerous piece of legislation with the potential to be abused.” .
State-run Bernama news agency also reported that authorities cannot be sued for how they enforce the regulation, even for mistakes they make “in good faith”.
Control of the narration
Bugher said the wide range the government’s new rules give to defining fake news is a recipe for abuse.
“It allows the government to be the final arbiter of the truth. And what we see regularly is that when governments are given the power to decide what is true and what is wrong, those powers usually end up in the target of government critics, ”he said.
Muhyiddin’s government has many of them, said Ding, who fears the new rules have more to do with “controlling the narrative” than fighting fake news.
“This government has been hugely criticized since it took office, the way it took office, and every day from now on its behavior. People are very critical of the way they 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 collapsed the incumbent government and brought him and his cabinet to power with no election. When Muhyiddin asked the king for a state of emergency to help contain a COVID-19 surge, many saw a prime minister with dwindling support in parliament desperately trying to stay in power by fending off the threat of early elections.
Despite early success in containing the pandemic, Malaysia has now recorded the third most common infections in Southeast Asia, with more than 320,000 confirmed cases.
The Prime Minister’s Public Relations Bureau did not respond to VOA’s calls or email requests for comment.
The government defended the fake news weapon at a press conference on Friday.
Communications Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said the existing laws were inadequate to keep up with the spread of fake news on social media and 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 are aware that we have to be fair, we have to do our duties fairly.”
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 social media giants to keep misinformation and disinformation from going viral will.
Bugher suggested that the government step up its own fact-checking and fact-sharing activities rather than risking stifling messages that might actually help.
“The worrying thing about laws like this is that at times they can stifle the bona fide discussion of issues that need to be discussed because if people don’t feel like they can say the wrong thing without going to jail, then they are it I’m not going to discuss things, ”he said.
For example, in the context of a pandemic, you really want people to share their concerns if they think there might be an outbreak or if they think the government is not doing what it should to prevent an outbreak combat a specific area, ”he added. “Those kinds of laws can really put that kind of speech off.”