Malaysia Is Making "Fake News" Illegal & It Could Be Seriously Problematic For Free Speech
If President Trump has one undeniable talent, it's making his ideas go viral. This week, it appears he has been so successful that his rhetoric is actually affecting legislation in other countries. Directly citing Trump's personal campaign against the phenomenon, Malaysia has made fake news illegal. The law applies to those who intentionally spread false facts both in and out of Malaysia, and also applies to non-Malaysians if the fake news affects the country or its citizens, Reuters reports. It carries a penalty of up to six years in prison, and a fine of approximately $123,000.
In this case, fake news is defined as "news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false," according to Reuters. At least one government official directly credited Trump with spreading the idea of fake news, and said that his dissemination of the term influenced the legislation.
"Fake news has become a global phenomenon, but Malaysia is at the tip of the spear in trying to fight it with an anti-fake news law," Fadhlullah Suhaimi Abdul Malek, an official from the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, told The New York Times. "When the American president made 'fake news' into a buzzword, the world woke up."
The spread of fake news in the United States, and its impact on the 2016 presidential election, is a phenomenon that is still being examined and debated. And while many have expressed concern that American voters may have been misled by false news stories shared across social media, critics of the new Malaysian law fear that the heavy penalties are a way to temper free speech as the country gears up for a major election.
Prime Minister Najib Razak is up for reelection this year, and that election has to take place before August, though some believe that it could take place before the end of May. The election could put Razak into office for a third term, and it is largely viewed as a referendum on his leadership. This is particularly because he has been embroiled in a scandal related to funding a government-owned development company called the Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) believes that hundreds of millions of dollars intended for 1MDB were laundered through U.S. financial institutions and placed into bank accounts controlled my Razak. Billions more, the DOJ says, were mishandled by people associated with the Malaysian prime minister. Razak has denied any wrongdoing, and has said that the some $731 million dollars the DOJ traced to his accounts was a gift from an unnamed Saudi donor.
Critics are concerned that the Malaysian fake news ban will be used to silence opposition who would use the ongoing 1MDB scandal to discredit Razak, or to persuade citizens against reelecting him. Reuters reports that one Malaysian politician described the law as the "Save Najib from 1MDB Scandal Bill."
The U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, responded to news of the new Malaysian law on Twitter. "The definitions are extremely vague, leaving excessive discretion for officials to define 'fake news', & the penalties are harsh, seemingly disproportionate," he wrote on Monday. "Tabling to voting this quickly is, in my view, very problematic." He encouraged the government to take a step back before rushing to pass the legislation.
Some Malaysian politicians, however, argue that fake news has been plaguing the country, and that the government and its constituents have been suffering because of it. "The only people that need to be afraid are those that broadcast or pass on fake news — or lies — to you and me," said communications and multimedia minister Salleh Said Keruak in a statement, according to Free Malaysia Today. "If we are criticized for being on the side of truth, so be it."
To what extent the law will be enforced is unclear. Malaysia is the first country in the world to explicitly outlaw "fake news."