Malaysia’s parliament has tabled an “Anti-Fake News Bill,” (Rang Undang-Undang Anti Berita Tidak Benar) which
seeks to safeguard the public against the proliferation of fake news whilst ensuring the right to freedom of speech and expression under the Federal Constitution is respected.
It has already earned wide criticism, not just for its policing of speech but also for its surprisingly broad applicability: to anything said about Malaysia or a Malaysians citizen, regardless of the nationality of the accused or the location of the alleged violation. Although the current regime exerts strong control over print and broadcast media through ownership and licensing regulations, it struggles to contain online media and of course cannot control media outside of the country. An Anti-Fake News Bill—which applies to also news that is “partly fake” (whatever that means)—would be a useful additional tool through which to clamp down on political criticism and investigative inquiry in the runup to Malaysia’s 14th General Elections.
Who determines what constitutes fake news? According to Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Azalina Othman Said’s official FAQ,
In this respect, the government has decided to leave it to a neutral and fair party, that is the courts, to determine whether a piece of news or information is incorrect or otherwise. That is, by the due process of law.
This would seem a reasonable solution were it not for the fact that the Malaysian judiciary is not particularly independent. Of course, laws used to criminalize “fake news” that is critical of the regime could in principle—if not in practice—be used against the regime itself as well. But again, the absence of a clearly independent judiciary suggests that this bill would disproportionately benefit the ruling coalition.
Silly PS: It would be interesting to see how an Anti-Fake News Bill could be used in the context of some of the biggest whoppers ever told about Malaysian politics, such as the famous “Malaysia was never colonized” ruling of the National Council of Professors from back in 2011.