Last Monday, the Malaysian government proposed a controversial bill prohibiting ‘fake news.’ The bill was passed this week, and it has been heralded by rights activists and political opponents alike as a renewed attempt by the ruling party to silence dissenting views (in particular, the discussion of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s protracted financial scandal) as the state prepares for a general election in August. The bill, which covers all media, broadly defines fake news as any “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false,” and pertains to any fake news that “concerns Malaysia… or a Malaysian citizen.” The bill is, therefore, extra-territorial in scope, allowing the Malaysian government to target both international media and local dissenters. Worse, those found guilty could face jail terms of up to six years, as well as maximum fines of US$130,000.
The Malaysian government has defended the bill, claiming it to be necessary for the protection of public harmony and national security to eradicate any news that hasn’t been verified by the state, and has accused the opposition of using fake news tactics to win votes. Many international rights organizations have strongly condemned the bill, with the Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, Brad Adams, claiming that “[t]he proposed law uses draconian penalties and broad language in an audacious and unprecedented effort to control discussion of Malaysia worldwide.” Within the country itself, the Malaysian Human Rights Commission released a statement asserting its belief that the bill could be used to “inspire an authoritarian form of government,” while media groups in the country called for the bill to be withdrawn or redrafted, arguing that it may stifle journalism and the media industry.
The passing of such a bill in the Southeast Asian nation is indicative of a wider trend across the region, where many governments are attempting to suppress any and all opposition to their respective regimes. The term ‘fake news’ was popularized by the current American President, Donald Trump, during his election campaign as a reaction to any criticism directed towards him by the media or opposing politicians. Since then, controlling and authoritarian regimes around the world have begun to use the phrase as a weapon against the media, the general public, and as a way to vigorously control their public image. For example, Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has criticized the international media’s coverage of the military’s involvement in the mistreatment of ethnic Rohingya as an “iceberg of misinformation” and has detained two Reuters journalists. Leaders of Cambodia and the Philippines have also used the term fake news to attack the media in their countries, and Singapore is in the process of establishing legislation to combat ‘online falsehoods.’
Malaysia is a weak democracy with a track record of corruption, abuse of power, and poor electoral integrity. For a state such as this, the introduction of concepts surrounding fake news into mainstream political discourse is a dangerous tool that legitimizes the government’s extreme reaction to dissenting views and critical discussion. This bill will only allow the Malaysian government to act without being held accountable by the general public and will create a climate of fear and uncertainty within the state. Moreover, the passing of the bill should serve as a warning of where the concept of fake news can lead, and the way it can be used by a state to dominate and intimidate it’s people.
For a democracy to flourish, the state must allow robust political discourse among its media and its people. Despite the assertion of the Malaysian government, this fake news bill will only lead to more instability and discontent within the state.