Malaysia’s lower house of parliament passed a bill Monday to punish people who spread false information, despite protests from the opposition claiming Prime Minister Najib Razak intends to use it to silence his critics amid looming elections.
The “Fake News” bill was approved by 123 lawmakers, including 10 from the opposition Islamist party (PAS), while 64 voted against it. The upper house is expected to pass it later this week before it will be taken to the king for approval and gazetted into law.
The bill declares that any person found guilty of creating, offering, publishing, distributing, circulating or disseminating fake news is liable to a fine to not exceed 500,000 ringgit (U.S. $129,412), imprisonment for up to six years or both.
The bill describes fake news as any news, information, data or report that is wholly or partly false, whether in the form of features, visuals, audio recordings or any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas.
Once the bill is passed, Najib is expected to dissolve parliament in preparation for Malaysia’s 14th General Election, which could take place in a matter of weeks.
The bill is not meant to stifle free speech but to curb the spreading of fake news because it is a global problem that needs to be contained, said Malaysia’s minister in charge of law, Azalina Othman.
The law is not draconian because the courts will decide what type of news is considered as fake, she added.
“Power will be given to the court to eliminate any fake news production,” she said.
‘It must not be rushed’: Najib’s brother
Earlier, opposition Democratic Action Party leader Lim Guan Eng said the bill was a form of dictatorship and was meant to jail opposition leaders if they lost in the coming general election.
Additionally, Najib’s younger brother, Nazir Razak aired his opposition to the government’s move in getting the bill passed so quickly.
“As much as I abhor fake news, the Anti Fake News Bill should be deferred. It must be comprehensively drafted and debated. It must not be rushed,” Nazir said on Instagram.
Monday’s vote came five days after the legislature approved redrawing the nation’s electoral maps in a way that would favor Najib’s party and the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, critics said. The new map is expected to take effect in time for the general election, which must be called by August.
Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is to lead the opposition Pakatan Harapan bloc against BN, led by Najib.
If Pakatan wins the election, Mahathir, 92, could serve as prime minister before ceding the position to Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar, who served as Mahathir’s prime minister before they had a bitter falling out, is imprisoned on a sodomy conviction and would need a pardon by the king to take over as prime minister.
On Sunday, Anwar issued a statement condemning the new electoral boundaries, calling them a blatant and unconstitutional act of gerrymandering.
“It is an admission by the BN that they would lose the general election using the old boundaries,” he said.
Anwar also challenged the fake news bill.
“They want this law to prevent further public discussion and criticism of the 1MDB scandal and other corruption scandals and wrongdoing of the BN,” he said, alluding to a scandal involving the loss of billions of dollars from the nation’s development fund, which Najib had founded.
“Fake news or false news can be dealt with by defamation laws,” he said. “Can we let the thieves who stole billions in public money decide what is fake?”