Updated at 4:50 p.m. ET on 2018-04-30
A Danish national of Yemeni descent on Monday became the first person sentenced under Malaysia’s new law against “fake news” after he pleaded guilty to posting inaccurate criticism of police on social media.
Salah Salem Saleh Sulaiman, 46, will serve a month behind bars after apologizing and admitting that he posted a video on YouTube accusing police of making a slow response to distress calls when a Palestinian electrical engineer was shot dead in Kuala Lumpur on April 21.
Malaysia began prohibiting “fake news” in April after its parliament passed a law that makes “maliciously” spreading or creating fake news punishable by up to six years in prison and a maximum fine of up to 500,000 ringgit (about U.S. $128,000). Critics said the law could potentially stifle free speech as the country gears up for its May 9 general election.
Salah, who holds a Malaysian tourist visa, said in his video that authorities took 50 minutes to respond to the killing of Fadi Mohamad Al Batsh, a 35-year-old university lecturer who was gunned down by two men on a motorbike as he walked to a mosque in the capital.
But police said it took them only eight minutes and prosecutors charged that Salah published fake news through his video “with ill intent.”
“I apologize to Malaysians. I did not know such a law and I did not have any knowledge about it,” Salah, who was wearing a white robe and a green skullcap, told the court in English.
The court sentenced Salah to a week in jail, including time already served since his arrest on April 23, and a fine of 10,000 ringgit (about U.S. $2,500), but he chose to serve a month behind bars in lieu of paying the fine.
Salah, who was not represented by an attorney, said he posted the video in a “moment of anger” but meant no harm.
Prosecutors said the two-minute video, which has been deleted from the video-sharing portal, showed Salah appearing near the scene of Al Batsh’s killing after the shooting.
Police said they were pursuing suspects in the killing. Last week, investigators released a picture of one of the alleged shooters who had a striking resemblance to a computer-generated sketch of one of the suspects believed to be of European or Middle Eastern origin.
The militant group Hamas has eulogized Al Batsh as a member and accused Israel of involvement in the killing, but Israeli officials dismissed the allegations.
Malaysia’s Anti-Fake News Act covers “news, information, data and reports” that are deemed “wholly or partly false” and includes features, visuals and audio recordings. The law applies to offenders outside Malaysia and includes foreigners, if the country or any of its citizens are affected.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued a statement challenging Salah’s sentence.
“Malaysia’s first conviction under its ‘fake news’ law shows authorities plan to abuse the new provision to criminalize critical reporting,” CPJ senior Southeast Asia representative Shawn Crispin said. “The dangerous precedent should be overturned and this ill-conceived law repealed for the sake of press freedom.”
Muslim-majority Malaysia is not the only Southeast Asian nation that recently clamped down on false news. Lawmakers in Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines also are preparing legislation to counter the proliferation of fake news online.