Strong Reactions to Anti-Fake News Bill

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Reacting to the proposed Anti-Fake News Bill, human rights groups have voiced concern over its vagueness and severity of punishment.

  • Calls to scrap, discard Bill
  • Penalises Facebook, WhatsApp groups’ administrators
  • Catches normal citizens, even individuals sending private messages
  • “Tool of oppression”
  • “Prosecutes journalists for doing their job of telling the truth”
  • Vague, harsh, “assault on freedom of expression”
  • “Death knell” for freedom of speech
  • “Orwellian nightmare”
  • “Biggest threat to democracy since independence”

Under the Anti-Fake News Bill, it is an offence to create, offer, publish, distribute, circulate or disseminate fake news. Those found guilty could face a jail term of up to ten years and a fine not exceeding RM500,000, or both.

It is also an offence to directly or indirectly provide financial assistance to facilitate the spread of fake news or to abet the offence.

The Bill describes fake news as any news, information, data or report, which is wholly or partly false, whether in the form of features, visuals, audio recordings or any other form, capable of suggesting words or ideas.

“This Bill is an assault on freedom of expression. The vague and broad definition of ‘fake news’, combined with severe punishments and arbitrary arrest powers for police, shows that this is nothing but a blatant attempt to shield the government from peaceful criticism,” said James Gomez, Amnesty International’s Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

In a statement today, he called for the Bill to be scrapped immediately.

“Malaysia has a long and troubling track record of using its legal books to silence dissent.

“It is no coincidence that this law has been tabled with general elections just around the corner.

“We are already seeing how the government is closing the space for public debate ahead of the polls.

“It is deeply disturbing that the Malaysian authorities are using the catch-all term ‘fake news’ as an excuse to crack down on critics.

“It is an extremely vague Bill: it does not clearly define the malicious falsehood required for the offence, the severity of the ‘fake news’ required before attracting criminal culpability, or the defences that are open to persons accused of publishing ‘fake news’,” its executive director Eric Paulsen said.

In a statement, he voiced concern over the reach of the Bill, noting that publication of ‘fake news’ also covered any dissemination of it.

“Simply put, sharing a link on social media can now be a crime if the authorities determine it to be ‘fake news’.”

Yusof Mat Isa

He said the Bill also put the burden on server hosts, forum moderators and even WhatsApp and Facebook administrators to delete content that could be false.

“Those who criticise the government, who accuse it of corruption, abuse of power and other wrongdoings, will now be expected to live up to an almost impossible burden of proof: that they must be able to justify what they are posting or sharing, lest they be charged with publishing or disseminating ‘fake news’.

“It is clear that the Bill, should it be passed, is sheer overkill and an exaggeration of the problem of ‘fake news’,” he said.

Warning that it would be “the death knell” for freedom of speech and press in Malaysia if the bill were passed, Paulsen said it should be discarded in its entirety.

Civil rights lawyer New Sin Yew said the government’s Anti-Fake News Bill uses the contradictory term of “fake news”, pointing out that a content that is fake cannot be news.

“The definition under the Bill is ridiculously broad, it includes even private text messages between individuals that may contain inaccurate information. Read with the offence under Section 4, it effectively makes lying an offence,” he told the Malay Mail.

“It catches everyone, even normal citizens like you and me. If I send you a private text message which I know contains information which is inaccurate, I would have committed an offence under the Act regardless of my intention,” he added, when saying the proposed law was open to abuse.

According to New, existing laws such as the Penal Code’s Section 1241 which carries a maximum five-year jail term are already stringent enough in dealing with situations where the public is being alarmed with false information.

Noting that victims of “fake news” could currently either file a lawsuit for defamation or a complaint with Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), he said both options were “not effective remedies because it either takes too long or is too costly”.

“The new law needs to address this which at present it does not.

“Instead of dealing with how to curb ‘fake news’, the government has done a botched up job of drafting a piece of law that is overly broad and oppressive that does not deal with the problem,” he added.

The Bill’s approach of dealing with allegations of fake news has a potential impact on journalists as a whole, according to the National Union of Journalists Peninsular Malaysia (NUJ) general secretary Chin Sung Chew.

He said the Bill has wide-reaching implications to the industry due to the heavy penalties imposed on sources, publishers and funders, plus its capacity to force media organisations to remove articles through ex-parte applications.

“Though the target of the Bill is those who create fake news, media organisations would also likely be stifled.

“Clause 8(3) states a removal order by the government against a publication that is possibly prejudicial to public order or national security cannot be applied to be set aside.

“We are gravely concerned in allowing one party to have unquestionable power to remove articles it disagrees with could be easily abused,” Chin said.

Malaysiakini editor-in-chief Steven Gan has described the Anti-Fake News Bill as another tool of oppression.

“Malaysia already has a litany of laws which have been used – and abused – to combat fake news. This new law is more than just another layer of control by the government; it is a death blow to the sliver of democracy that we have.

“Fake news is now whatever the government says it is. Two plus two do not make four, if the government says so. This Anti-Fake News Bill is plunging the country into an Orwellian nightmare.”

Serdang MP Ong Kian Ming said the law is meant to prosecute journalists for doing their job of telling the truth.

“Those who say that journalists have nothing to fear from the Anti-Fake News Bill as long as they report accurately are clearly missing the point.

“The point of such a law is to prosecute truth tellers by labelling them as purveyors of fake news,” Ong said in his tweet.

Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia communications chief Datuk Kamarudin Md Nor questioned who decides what is fake news.

“If the government is the sole decision maker on this, is this a dictatorial government or a democratic government?” he asked.

PKR MP N Surendran said the law is itself a “fake law”, and repugnant to the rule of law.

The Sun daily reported that the Padang Serai MP said the Bill is the biggest threat to democracy in the country since independence.

“Freedom of speech is the bedrock of democracy. The public cannot freely exercise the right to free speech, with the constant threat of arrest and prosecution hanging over their head. Healthy and open public discourse will come to an end.

“The Bill is in complete contravention of the Federal Constitution, and is thus invalid and unconstitutional. Article 10(1)(a) guarantees freedom of speech. Article 10(2)(a) only allows restrictions to freedom of speech which are necessary for the purposes of public order.

“However, the definition of fake news in clause 3 of the Bill as anything wholly or partly false, goes beyond the restriction allowed in Article 10(2)(a). It would include any false news, even if it is not a threat to public order. This runs foul of Article 10(2)(a),” Surendran was quoted saying.