Last week, fake-news re-entered the headlines when President Donald Trump threatened to remove the credentials of any media outlet publishing “negative (fake)” stories. However extreme this eradication of anything but Trump-friendly reportage seems, it’s overshadowed by the law Malaysia passed at the beginning of April this year. The “Anti-Fake News Bill 2018” was passed under former Prime Minister Najib Razak, to widespread criticism. One of its critics was the newly-appointed Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who made promises to abolish the law if he was elected. Hopes were dashed this morning, when Mohamad clarified that he would not be revoking the law, but reviewing it instead. So, what does this mean for fake-news, negative news, and freedom of speech in Malaysia?
The “Anti-Fake News Bill 2018” seeks to punish everyone involved in fake-news, from the original writers to all those who shared, reposted, or retweeted the final result. A fake-news writer or sharer could face up to six years in prison, a fine of RM500,000 (£90,400/$128,000), or both. The law is not domestic, and anyone publishing fake-news related to Malaysian citizens could similarly face prosecution. The law was passed just before the general election, attracting speculation that it was an effort from Najib Razak to control his portrayal in the media.
What constitutes fake-news for the “Anti-Fake News Bill 2018”? There is no clear definition – which has been the main problem in tackling the fake-news crisis since its spread in 2016. Adverts in Kuala Lumpur are announcing the new law with the caption “Sharing a lie makes you a liar”, but fake-news is rarely identifiable as a ‘lie’ to its sharers.
One hint at a possible definition comes from one of Razak’s own officials. In this case, fake-news was described as being anything which discussed the 1MDB scandal (where Razak was accused of transferring $681m of government funds into his own bank account) and hadn’t been verified by the government.
Now in power, 92-year old Mahathir Mohamad promises to tame the legislation, whilst reiterating his commitment to limiting the spread of fake-news. The Prime Minister was himself accused of spreading fake-news when he claimed his plane had been tampered with. The answer for him lies in creating a concrete definition and ensuring this is known by the media and public alike. This way, he believes, freedom of speech and freedom of press can exist, and news can be monitored.
At present, one person has been prosecuted under the “Anti-Fake News Bill 2018”. A Danish national was prosecuted last week for uploading a YouTube video accusing the police of taking 50 minutes to respond to distress calls about a shooting. In court, he retracted his accusation and apologised for uploading the video. He was sentenced to a month in prison, or a fine of RM10,000. Despite Mohamad’s promise of a revised anti-fake news bill, it is not yet clear whether this prosecution will be Malaysia’s last.