The government of Malaysia has rushed a new Anti-Fake News Bill into Parliament aimed at restricting political speech ahead of upcoming general elections. As with previous similar bills, this bill has been introduced with minimal time for public consultation and could pass Parliament as early as this week.
The law would impose penalties as high as 10 years in prison and half a million Malaysian Ringgit (about $128,340) in fines for the publication or distribution of "any news, information, data and reports, which is or are wholly or partly false, whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas." Those who have "possession, custody or control [of] any publication containing fake news"—which could include social media platforms and web hosts—are also required "to immediately remove such publication after knowing or having reasonable grounds to believe that such publication contains fake news."
Targets of the law may include discussions of the alleged misappropriation of $700,000 in state funds into Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's personal bank account, a political scandal that the government has been trying to repress for years. This has resulted in websites being blocked, news outlets shutting down, and political cartoonists being charged with sedition.
The new bill doesn't just criminalize Malaysians who publish or distribute "fake news," but also foreigners. This is important because one of the news outlets that first brought the Malaysian Prime Minister's alleged corruption to light was the Sarawak Report, whose publisher is based in the United Kingdom, and which also publishes on the U.S.-based Medium.
Providing financial assistance for purposes of committing or facilitating a "fake news" offense is also criminalized under the new bill. This may be aimed at news portals that have been critical of the government, such as MalaysiaKini, which once received a grant from a U.S.-based charitable foundation to produce some of its audiovisual programming. The wording of this provision is broad enough that it may even catch those who merely pay subscription fees or donations to those involved in "fake news" dissemination.
This is hardly the Malaysian government's first foray into politically-motivated Internet censorship, but this latest measure is of special concern because its aim is to intimidate Malaysians into silence, rather than to censor speech that is already online. It is also yet another reminder of the insidious malleability of the concept of "fake news," which has become a term often used to refer to news that is critical of those in power, rather than news that is deliberately false.
Freedom of speech is not just a U.S. constitutional guarantee. It's also protected in international human rights law, and the exceptions that the international community recognizes are few and narrow. The Malaysian government's attempt to classify this broad and repressive censorship measure as a national security law is unconvincing, and Malaysians have every right to be concerned that the law will be abused to shut down and criminalize legitimate political speech.