Malaysian lawmakers voted Wednesday to abolish a “fake news” law passed ahead of last year’s general election, while the nation’s oldest Malay-language daily, partly owned by the party ousted in the polls, narrowly avoided shutting its doors.
After two days of debate, MPs voted 93-53 in favor of repealing the law. The vote occurred five days after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said that his government would dump “draconian laws” imposed by Najib Razak, whose government lost the May 2018 election.
Such laws “resulted in the people feeling very insecure because they could be arrested and detained without the need to be heard in a court of law,” the state-run news service Bernama quoted Mahathir as saying. “But the new government will repeal the laws and introduce new laws.”
Legislators under Najib’s government hurriedly passed the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 weeks before the election. Rights groups had described the law’s penalties and broad language as an effort to muzzle discussion about the corruption-tainted 1MDB state fund founded by Najib 10 years ago.
The law punishes the deliberate spread of false information with hefty fines – up to 500,000 ringgit ($119,000) – and prison terms of up to six years.
In August 2018, parliament’s lower house voted to repeal the law, but the move was blocked by the Senate, which was controlled by Najib’s party. Under parliamentary rules, the Senate cannot block a parliamentary vote on a bill a second time.
Human Rights Watch said Wednesday’s vote to repeal the anti-fake news law was “long overdue.”
The law “was a huge threat that would have devastated press freedom in Malaysia if it had ever been implemented,” Phil Robertson, a deputy Asia director at the rights watchdog, said in a statement Wednesday.
Muslim-majority Malaysia is among Southeast Asian nations that are expanding existing regulations by invoking the proliferation of fake news online to introduce stricter laws that, critics say, could potentially stifle free speech.
Singapore’s sweeping Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill came into force on Wednesday last week, while lawmakers in Indonesia and the Philippines are also preparing legislation to counter fake news.
Under Singapore’s new law, it is now illegal to spread “false statements of fact” under circumstances in which that information is deemed “prejudicial” to state’s security, public safety and public tranquility, among numerous other topics.
‘Utusan will live on’
Also on Wednesday, Utusan Malaysia, the oldest Malay newspaper with close ties to the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party, announced an operational shutdown due to its incapability to shoulder debts.
In a memo seen by BenarNews and distributed to staff members, the newspaper confirmed that it would officially cease operations Wednesday. But in an interview with a business news website, Utusan executive chairman Abdul Aziz Sheikh Fadzir said the paper “will live on.”
“We are liquidating the holding company but the ownership of the printing licenses [has] been acquired by Aurora Mulia and they will relaunch publications in the near future,” theedgemarkets.com quoted Abdul Aziz as saying.
Not much is publicly known about the company Aurora Mulia Sdn Bhd. Local newspapers said it was linked to Malaysian businessman Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary, a close ally of Mahathir.
Utusan Malaysia was first published in the Arabic-derived Jawi language in Singapore in 1939. It switched to Roman letters in 1967.
The newspaper – founded by Yusof Ishak, who later became the first president of Singapore, and Abdul Rahim Kajai, an icon of Malay journalism – became one of the largest-selling newspapers in Malaysia, with circulation peaking at 350,000 copies a day in the 1990s.
In 2004, circulation had declined to 250,000 and further down to 144,438 copies in the first half of 2016, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
In August, The Edge newspaper reported that Utusan Malaysia was facing an uphill battle to pay its liabilities of 139.19 million ringgit (U.S. $33.1 million) as of June 30.
Abdul Aziz, in his memo on Wednesday, said the company “went downhill” after the May elections, adding that the company’s management had agreed to close down operations during a board meeting on Monday.
“This was a necessary step as the board is of the opinion that the company is no longer solvent to continue operations,” he said. “Therefore the company will cease operations on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019.”