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10 years in jail and heavy fine: Malaysia eyes law against 'fake news'

The proposed law has met with considerable criticism from the media and opposition.

10 years in jail and heavy fine: Malaysia eyes law against 'fake news'
Representative image of the Dewan Negara, the upper house of Malaysia's Parliament. (picture: Parliament of Malaysia)

The Malaysian government has introduced an anti-fake news bill that has sparked controversy as the Southeast Asian nations heads towards a general election. The proposed law imposes a heavy fine and a 10-year prison sentence. Opposition parties and media houses have spoken out, calling the bill an attack on press freedom and a tool for the government to suppress any unfavourable attention.

The Anti-Fake News Bill 2018 proposes a maximum fine of 500,000 Ringgits - that's about Rs 83 lakh in Indian terms - for anyone found guilty of creating, publishing or circulating news that is 'wholly or partly' false. This heavy fine may or may not be combined with a prison sentence that could extend to 10 years. And all of this applies not must to news outlets, but also to social media and instant messenging platforms.

Perhaps what makes this legislation different from most existing anti-fake news laws around the world is that it would also cover individuals and entities from other countries. Another key and unique punitive measure is the 3000 Ringgit per day fine for each day that a piece of fake news is circulated after a person has been convicted.

Opposition to the proposed law has stemmed from multiple fronts. Media outlets criticise it saying it gives the government a tool to target any news report as fake news. Politicians have taken aim at it saying it is a ploy by the government to curtail freedom of political expression ahead of the elections. 

"The bill is of a deterrent nature, to give a clear message that each individual should be responsible for the sharing of true and healthy information... At the same time, the bill will also give a clear message that the government will not compromise in the matter of dissemination of fake news that can undermine public order or national security, and will continue to ensure that national security is preserved," said Azalina Othman Said, a Minister in the Prime Minister's Department, in an interview to New Straits Times.

She also dismissed the criticism of the threat the bill may pose to freedom of expression. "This is an unsubstantiated and politically-motivated claim… The proposed bill is aimed at protecting the public from fake news and, at the same time, ensuring that their right to speech and expression under the Federal Constitution is respected," Said said.