Recent events have shown how distorted versions of the truth can manipulate millions and have far-reaching consequences. Malaysia’s lower house of parliament on Monday passed a bill outlawing fake news. The Senate is expected to move it later this week as it has the majority of ruling party members. This Anti-Fake News Bill is the first of its kind and other countries like Germany, Singapore and India are trying to ascertain adequate measures to tackle fake news.
Opposition and critics say that this allows the ruling party to choose the most favourable version of the truth especially in light of the upcoming elections and the Malaysian Prime Minister’s alleged involvement in a multi-billion dollar scandal.
Provisions of the Bill
The first draft allowed for a max 10-year prison sentence if found guilty. The redrafted version has a maximum prison sentence of 6 years and a fine upto 500,000 Malaysian Ringgit (US $129300).
As reported by The Wire, the bill defines fake news as “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false.” It covers audio, video, features and any other form capable of conveying a message. Online third-party content providers are also within its ambit, and even foreign offenders can be held responsible if the resulting fake news affects Malaysia or its citizens.
Malaysian minister of communications and multimedia, Salleh Keruack, told the The New York Times, “the public wants a law to protect Malaysians from the fake news…If you are a victim of something that’s viral but fake, your life is ruined. Malaysia’s various legal mechanisms including a strict penal code, the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the Sedition Act, and the Communications and Multimedia Act do not provide adequate defence against misinformation.”
Critics oppose the lack of public scrutiny and view this as a tool to crack down on anti-government news. Malaysia ranks 144th out of 180 countries in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index
A self serving move by the government?
Malaysian elections are to be held in a matter of weeks, and the incumbent PM Najib Razak is facing an uphill battle to secure a third term in office. A multi-billion dollar scam has tainted his administration at the state sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). An estimated $3.5 billion were diverted from the fund and were laundered through the United States or used to acquire property and lavish gifts. US Department of justice is now treating this as a criminal investigation and has reportedly traced $731 million deposited into bank accounts controlled by Najib who shrugged it off as a gift by a Saudi Arabian patron.
The reports of this scam started surfacing three years ago, and since then several reporters, activists and politicians have been silenced under sedition and defamation laws. Even the attorney general looking into the finances of 1MDB was fired.
The Logical Indian take
Fake News has become a global menace, and even online third-party content providers are gearing up to tackle this as nations are increasingly holding them responsible. However, a hastily passed law without proper public scrutiny and accountability mechanisms will only serve the respective authoritarian regimes as they will get to decide on the ‘truth’.