Public interest groups and leaders have expressed concern that the proposed Anti-Fake News Bill 2018 may stifle citizens’ rights and muzzle the media.
The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) does not support the Bill, saying that in its current form it could be used to exert government control over the media.
Its chairman Tan Sri Razali Ismail said that the implications of the proposed law can be huge and can inspire an authoritarian form of government.
“The government’s track record in utilising laws for reasons other than its intended purpose is arguably questionable,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.
He also said the Bill fails to specify the body responsible for verifying as to whether or not the news or information is fake.
He added that the definition of fake news in the Bill is unclear as it does not distinguish between news generated by malicious intent or otherwise.
“Not only have there been very limited consultations with the public, the dissolution of parliament being imminent means that debates on the Bill, for the Bill to become law will be rushed. This practice is not in the national interest,” said Razali.
The Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) cautioned that the Bill will be seen as an attempt to curtail the people’s civil and political freedoms in view of the upcoming general election.
Ideas coordinator Aira Azhari said the haste in which the bill is being pushed through Parliament signifies that members of parliament will not have sufficient time to scrutinise the contents. It also undermines the parliamentary process.
“One of the most worrying aspects of the proposed law is the definition of ‘fake news’, which includes, among other things, private text messages between individuals containing inaccurate information.
Further, the law also applies to Malaysians if they commit the offence outside Malaysia, as well as to foreigners committing the same offence and the news involves Malaysia or affects a Malaysian,” Aira said in a statement.
Senior lawyer Datuk Roger Tan has called for a committee to be set up to conduct a study into the Bill and urged the Government not to pass it in haste.
Tan said passing a law with draconian provisions could seriously affect Malaysia’s cherished freedoms and democracy, The Star reported.
He suggested that Malaysia follow Singapore’s example by setting up a parliamentary committee to study the proposed law first.
“If 80 percent of the fake news were spread via online platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook, then this could already be handled by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC),” he was quoted saying.
He expressed concern at the way the Bill was drafted, which makes every offence a seizable offence – which means an offender can be arrested without a warrant.
“It is worrying as it might be abused by some parties.
“A law is only good if it has safeguards against it being abused,” he was quoting saying.
He also voiced his concerns over who has the power to decide what is fake news and what is not.
“Will all government propaganda be real news?”
Lawmaker Tony Pua said contradictory statements from the communications and multimedia minister and his deputy have raised the question of whether the government has double standards concerning the bill.
Pua, in a statement, noted that minister Datuk Seri Salleh Keruak had assured foreign correspondents in a meeting on March 26 that the US Department of Justice filings on 1Malaysia Development Bhd would not be considered fake news.
“You can quote them, [on] what they have said, based on the filings. It is not considered fake news. It is their views,” Pua quoted Salleh as saying.
However, Pua also said Salleh’s deputy, Datuk Jalani Johari, had told Parliament on March 21 that “other than information verified by the government, all other information is deemed as fake news”.
Meanwhile, an online petition to drop the Bill has been initiated by Aliran’s executive committee, The Sun reported.
The petition stated that the Bill proposed by the government “ahead of the general election is a draconian bit of legislation that must be opposed”.
“The overly broad definition of fake news extends the traditional definition of news to cover all sorts of other messages in a way that goes beyond any good intention of the Bill,” it said. “In fact, it will make victims out of anyone who steps beyond a moving line.
“The proponents of the Bill obviously hope that the people will succumb to a culture of fear, that they will be too afraid to share their thoughts with others on public interest issues. They hope we will be mentally imprisoned.
“They hope that speeches in political ceramah in the coming general election will become more sanitised, that opposition politicians will become overcautious in their delivery.”
Aliran added that the Bill intends to place journalists, bloggers and commentators to become more circumspect when writing on public interest issues.