Malaysian MPs vote to repeal 'fake news' law

Malaysian MPs vote to repeal 'fake news' law

Malaysia parliament
File photo of a Parliament House session in Kuala Lumpur. (Photo: Fandy Azlan/Department of Information/AFP)

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian lawmakers on Wednesday (Oct 9) once again voted to repeal a controversial law that punished spreading "fake news" with up to six years behind bars and which critics said was aimed at stifling dissent. 

Under the legislation, those who disseminated what authorities deemed false news - via any medium, from print to social networks - could also be fined up to RM500,000 (US$120,000).

This is second attempt by the Dewan Rakyat, or the lower house, to overturn the law. MPs had voted to repeal it last year, only for the opposition-controlled Dewan Negara, or upper chamber, to block it.

On Wednesday, the Anti-Fake News (Repeal) Bill 2019 was passed 92-51 in the Dewan Rakyat. 

Senators in the Dewan Negara are only able to block a Bill once, meaning it should still now be repealed even if lawmakers there vote it down again.

The fake news legislation was pushed through last year during the previous Barisan Nasional administration in the run-up to the hotly contested general election, sparking a storm of anger.

Political opponents said it was a crude tool aimed at silencing criticism of the then-government and its leader Najib Razak, particularly over the corruption scandal surrounding state fund 1MDB.

However, Najib and his long-ruling coalition unexpectedly lost the landmark 2018 elections that brought to power a reformist alliance which had pledged to abolish the law.

READ: Malaysia fines Najib's brother, others for receiving 1MDB funds

READ: Malaysia aims to recover nearly US$1 billion paid out by former 1MDB unit

A total of 25 MPs rose to speak over the past two days during the debate on repealing the law.

"The Act ... has elements that are draconian and can be abused," said Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Mohamed Hanipa Maidin in winding up the debate. 

Charles Santiago, an MP from the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition, told AFP the legislation had been aimed at helping "cover up the former government's abuse and corruption".

The Bill, copies of which were circulated to the media, said that the law was "no longer relevant" as the current government views that fake news can be tackled with other laws, such as the Penal Code, Printing Presses and Publications Act, as well as Communications and Multimedia Act.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who ousted Najib at last year's polls, was investigated for allegedly spreading fake news days ahead of the election. He was an opposition leader at the time.

Malaysia is one of several countries in Asia that have turned to such legislation, emboldened by US President Donald Trump's fulminations against "fake news", but activists warn authoritarian regimes will use the laws to target opponents.

Source: Agencies/jt

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