Malaysia lowers maximum jail time in fake news Bill after backlash

Malaysia lowers maximum jail time in fake news Bill after backlash

Najib walk to parliament
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak walks to the parliament house before a session in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Mar 28, 2018. (Photo: AP/Sadiq Asyraf)

KUALA LUMPUR: The Malaysian government says it has agreed to amend two clauses in the Anti-Fake News Bill being debated in parliament on Thursday (Mar 29) following criticism from human rights advocates, the media and the opposition.

The Bill now sets a maximum jail time of six years and/or a fine of RM500,000 instead of 10 years and/or the fine. The wording of clauses has also been changed from "knowingly" to "maliciously" creating, spreading or publishing fake news or providing financial assistance to those who do so.

"These amendments are proof that the government is very open and sincere in listening and taking into account views from all sides," said Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Azalina Othman Said.

"These amendments were proposed after taking into account views from several parties, including Members of Parliament".

Malaysia's National Human Rights Commission on Thursday had said it could not support the Anti-Fake News Bill, calling for a parliamentary committee to be set up to consider plausible measures to address fake news instead.

"The Bill in its present form has far-reaching consequences as the law could be used to exert government control over the media," said chairman Razali Ismail in a statement.

"The implications of the proposed law can be enormous 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."

Journalist groups had also expressed concern about the Bill impinging on media freedoms, citing clauses such as those that empower the courts to take down articles pending investigations or for good, if the government deems it a threat to public order or national security.

"The question is when you go to the courts, how are they going to decide what is fake news or not?" said Ram Anand, a board member of the Institute of Journalists Malaysia.

"(And) when the government cites national security and goes to the court and says this article must be taken down, (the Bill states) we cannot file an application to reverse the order as a news organisation".

In the meantime, the opposition feared the proposed law could be used against them ahead of elections.

Malaysia's Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak told foreign media at a meeting last week that "whatever we do, people will interpret differently. But as far as we're concerned, this needed to be urgently tabled because I think Malaysians need it to protect themselves".

The Bill is being debated in parliament and will likely pass next week, ahead of general elections that are speculated to be held within weeks.

Source: CNA/ec