New Malaysian Law Criminalizes ‘Fake News’ About Emergency, COVID-19

Hadi Azmi
Kuala Lumpur
2021-03-11
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New Malaysian Law Criminalizes ‘Fake News’ About Emergency, COVID-19 A mural depicts Malaysia's Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in Kuala Lumpur, Oct. 27, 2020.
[Reuters]

Malaysia unveiled a law Thursday that criminalizes “fake news” about the country’s state of emergency and coronavirus pandemic, a development which one critic called a “shut-up order against all Malaysians.”

The emergency ordinance, published in a government gazette Thursday, could be used to silence and punish critics of the unelected Muhyiddin Yassin government, said lawyers, reporters and opposition members. His administration has become increasingly repressive since taking power last March, they said.

“Fake news includes any news, information, data and reports, which is or are wholly or partly false relating to COVID-19 or the proclamation of emergency, whether in the forms of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas,” according to a copy of the Emergency (Essential Powers) (No. 2) Ordinance 2021 obtained by BenarNews.

Under the decree, which comes into force on Friday, Malaysians convicted of spreading “fake news” on the pandemic or the national emergency can face three years in prison or a maximum penalty of 100,000 ringgit (U.S. $24,345), or both.

It was enacted as an emergency ordinance, which means parliamentarians did not draft or discuss its provisions. Its provisions override the Evidence Act, doing away with long-entrenched rules about how evidence is collected and used in cases.

The government of Prime Minister Najib Razak adopted a similar law against fake news, but that legislation which parliament passed with little debate in 2018, was abolished the next year by a new government.

“Fight fake news with facts, not Acts,” said Gerakan Media Merdaka, a coalition of working media professionals, recycling its slogan from the time when Najib was still in power.

On Thursday, BenarNews contacted the office of Saifuddin Abdullah, the minister of Communications and Multimedia, but he and an aide didn’t immediately respond.

The Center for Independent Journalism (CIJ), a media watchdog, said the new ordinance followed a long line of suppressive moves by Muhyiddin’s government.

“178 individuals investigated after exercising their freedom to express themselves, 92 incidents of freedom of expression violations through investigations, police questioning and court charges,” CIJ tweeted.

“[S]top using the emergency proclamation to stifle any criticism of the current administration. … Without the necessary parliamentary checks and balances … [the ordinance] foretells the continued attempts by this government to use any means possible to undermine our fundamental rights and freedoms,” CIJ said in a statement.

The ordinance also shows that the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government brooks no criticism, said Azira Aziz, an activist with the rights group Liga Rakyat Demokratik.

“The new Emergency Ordinance is basically a shut-up order against all Malaysians [because] clearly constructive criticism isn’t something the current PN [government] believes in,” Aziz said on Twitter.

Muhyiddin suspended parliament after the king imposed an emergency on Jan. 12 on the PM’s advice. Both decisions remain highly controversial.

Opposition party Pejuang, led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad who scrapped Najib’s “fake news” law, said the new ordinance was “definitely prone to be abused.”

Few knew that such legislation was on the anvil when Communications Minister Abdullah said this week that he wished his ministry could do more to counter “fake news,” especially about COVID-19, in the age of social media and free apps like WhatsApp, according to the state-run Bernama news agency.

Abdullah has called a media conference on Friday on the new “fake news” ordinance.

Ken Chang in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah also contributed to this report.

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