Rights groups are raising alarms over a series of legal moves across Southeast Asia, where legislators are expanding existing regulations by invoking the proliferation of fake news online to introduce stricter laws that, critics say, could potentially stifle free speech.
In Malaysia, lawmakers are debating an anti-fake news bill that was introduced in parliament on Monday and expected to be approved next week ahead of elections where Prime Minister Najib Razak’s links to a multi-million dollar investment scandal is among key issues.
Lawmakers in Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines are also preparing legislation to counter fake news, which the Malaysian bill defines as any news, information, data or report that is “wholly or partially false.”
Critics say the new laws could be used by authoritarian leaders to punish legitimate news outlets that often criticize their administrations.
“Most of the time, the definition of what is fake news is very vague, so it leads to tremendous potential for governments to abuse,” Steve Butler, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told BenarNews in a phone interview on Thursday.
“For journalists, it poses tremendous hazards. Are people going to be put in jail as a result of making occasional errors that almost every journalist makes?”
Azalina Othman, Malaysia’s minister in charge of law, told the parliament in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday that the government had decided to reduce the proposed prison term for those convicted under the anti-fake news bill from 10 to six years after taking into account suggestions from several parties, including legislators.
“The bill tabled today is not a law that would obstruct the freedom of speech, but it is to curb the freedom of spreading fake news,” she said, adding that the government had also decided to amend a clause in the proposed law against falsehoods to make it a crime for people to “maliciously” create false news.
But on Thursday, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Kuala Lumpur to withdraw the bill.
“Malaysia’s ‘fake news’ bill is a blatant attempt by the government to prevent any and all news that it doesn’t like, whether about corruption or elections,” Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said in a statement. “The proposed law uses draconian penalties and broad language in an audacious and unprecedented effort to control discussion of Malaysia worldwide.”
A clear target of the legislation is the discussion about the corruption-tainted state fund known as 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), which was founded by Prime Minister Najib, HRW said. Najib has denied any wrongdoing related to 1MDB.
Malaysia's National Human Rights Commission on Thursday declined to support the anti-fake news bill, calling instead for a parliamentary committee to consider measures that would tackle the proliferation of bogus reports.
“The Bill in its present form has far-reaching consequences as the law could be used to exert government control over the media,” the commission’s chairman, Razali Ismail, said in a statement.
The Malaysian bill would require individuals, corporations and websites to “immediately” remove content if they have “reasonable grounds to believe it contains fake news.” Failure to do so could result in a criminal fine of up to 100,000 Malaysian ringgit (US$26,000).
In Indonesia, activists and non-governmental groups filed a lawsuit last week challenging Jakarta’s newly amended law that would allow people to go to jail for criticizing national politicians.
The revised Law on Representative Assemblies, also known as the MD3 law, came into force this month after legislators approved it in February, despite warnings from legal and media groups that it could impinge on free speech.
Under the amended law, legislators can bring charges against people who "undermine its honor or that of its members,” allowing lawmakers to place a person under arrest for more than 30 days, critics said.
But Bambang Soesatyo, Indonesia’s new House speaker, told reporters that the amendment would not quash public criticism of lawmakers.
In Singapore, a parliamentary committee is reviewing possible measures to prevent “deliberate online falsehoods.”
More than 70 per cent of Singaporean residents surveyed in a poll have come across online news that they thought were “not fully accurate,” according to a government feedback unit this week.
“The prevalence of fake news and the ease with which it can propagate online presents a serious challenge to our society, not least because it can strain our social fabric and have real-life consequences in some cases,” Minister Sam Tan was reported saying.
Singapore ranks 151 out of 180 countries in a World Press Freedom Index issued by Reporters Without Borders, a non-government group that promotes freedom of information.
Verify user identify, Philippine House speaker says
In the Philippines, a predominantly Roman Catholic country, House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez has filed a bill mandating social media companies to verify the identity of users before registering them on their networks.
He said it could prevent creation of fake accounts and spread of fake news.
A recent study released by Universal McCann, a New York-based advertising agency, described the Philippines as “the social-networking capital of the world” with almost 83 percent of 103 million Filipinos claiming to have social-media accounts.
Since he took power in June 2016, Duterte has turned social media platforms such as Facebook into a tool, where his social-media handlers, backed by their army of supporters and followers, defend the popular 74-year-old leader.
The “trolls” have become so effective that those who criticize the president or have opposing views become targets of vicious online threats, media analysts say.
Duterte has defended a corporate regulator’s move to revoke the license of Rappler, a news website that has criticized his government’s brutal anti-drug war. He has also prohibited Rappler’s reporters from covering the presidential palace, describing the website as a “fake news outlet.”