Malaysian Officials Defend Emergency Ordinance Outlawing Fake News

Hadi Azmi
2021.03.12
Kuala Lumpur
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Malaysian Officials Defend Emergency Ordinance Outlawing Fake News Communication and Multimedia Minister Saifuddin Abdullah (left) and Law Minister Takiyuddin Hassan hold copies of the anti-fake news Emergency Ordinance during a press conference in Putrajaya, March 12, 2021.
S. Mahfuz/BenarNews

The Malaysian government on Friday defended a new ordinance outlawing “fake news” to do with the national emergency and COVID-19 pandemic, saying the measure would help ensure law and order and the success of a coronavirus vaccination program.

The Emergency (Essential Powers) (No. 2) Ordinance 2021 would stay in force only as a “short-term remedy” to curb the spread of false information and help maintain public safety during the current state of emergency, Communications and Multimedia Minister Saifuddin Abdullah told a news conference in Putrajaya.

“It is to expedite enforcement, investigation and prosecution, but does not impair the rights of the judiciary,” Abdullah said in explaining the government’s reasons for imposing the new decree.

“We don’t want our vaccination program to fail just because of fake news ... we cannot fail but there are people who want the process to fail,” Abdullah said.

The ordinance, published in a government gazette the day before and which went into effect on Friday, did not require parliamentary approval. In mid-January, the king declared a national emergency over the viral outbreak.

Law Minister Takiyuddin Hassan, who appeared alongside Abdullah at the press conference, told reporters that until the Emergency Ordinance was voided, it would be a criminal offense to publish that the Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin sought an emergency declaration from the king because his unelected government had reportedly lost a parliamentary majority.

“It is an offense. To me, it is an offense,” he said.

Hassan noted that King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah had a role in crafting the ordinance on fake news.

“It was included [in the ordinance] by the King himself that he is satisfied that an immediate action is necessary to safeguard of the economy and safety,” Hassan said.

Under the ordinance, those convicted of spreading “fake news” on the pandemic or the national emergency can face three years in prison, a maximum penalty of 100,000 ringgit (U.S. $24,289) or both.

The decree defines “fake news” as “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.”

“It is only valid as long as the emergency is in effect. If it is lifted on Aug. 1, then it will end,” Hassan said.

He added that if the parliament did not annul the ordinance at the end of the emergency, it would automatically expire in six months as stated in the Constitution.

As of this month, the Royal Malaysia Police and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission had launched 287 investigation papers regarding fake news about COVID-19, according to officials.

Of those cases, 113 remain under investigation, charges were filed in 51 cases and 30 were found guilty under the Multimedia Communications Act. Trials continue in 20 cases while 12 people were given warnings. In addition, the commission has issued 428 notices to counter fake news on COVID-19 related issues, according to officials.

‘A straightforward gag rule’

Critics of the new ordinance say it is an attempt by Muhyiddin’s government to silence criticism of him and gives his administration sweeping powers to define any content as fake.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, described the ordinance as “a human rights disaster.”

“This is a straightforward gag rule that is designed to stop any discussion of the state of emergency proclamation and COVID-19-related actions by the government,” Robertson told BenarNews.

“Quite clearly, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin is scared of allowing the Malaysian people to freely express their views because he knows how critical they are of him and his faltering government.”

Meanwhile, Ramkarpal Singh, chairman of National Legal Bureau of Democratic Action Party, challenged Hassan’s statement that questioning the legitimacy of the government is an offense under the ordinance. He called the statement ill-advised and a baseless threat.

“Who is he to intimidate us with what we feel are valid concerns,” Singh asked. “Takiyuddin (Hassan) has no business telling the people what is fake and what is not – that is for the courts to decide.”

He added that Muhyiddin had nothing to fear if he commanded a majority in parliament, and advised the king to reconvene parliament, which has been suspended during the emergency, so laws relating to the pandemic can be debated for the betterment of the country.

Noah Lee in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.

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