Malaysia Outlaws ‘Fake News’ on Emergency, Covid Pandemic

Malaysia made use of its emergency powers on Thursday, bypassing parliament to impose new laws on fake news two years after the act was scrapped by the previous government.

An ordinance that took effect Friday punishes creating or spreading information “wholly or partly false” relating to Covid-19 or the emergency proclamation with jail time and large fines, according to a federal gazette published Thursday.

The “short-term remedy” was introduced to expedite enforcement, investigation and prosecution into the matter, Communications and Multimedia Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said in a virtual briefing on Friday. The legislation is also meant to prevent fake news on the pandemic and the emergency from stoking uncertainty, he said.

Malaysia’s parliament remains suspended through the emergency period, which is set to end on Aug. 1. The government has resisted calls to allow lawmakers to reconvene, citing the pandemic, even as the country reopened most of the economy and lifted a ban on travel between districts.

The ordinance will automatically lapse six months after the state of emergency is lifted, or sooner if it is scrapped by parliament, Saifuddin said. Still, the Centre for Independent Journalism, a non-government organization based in Kuala Lumpur, said the law is an attempt to stifle criticism of the current government.

“‘Fake news’ is not clearly defined in the law, opening the real possibilities of abuse through arbitrary arrests, investigations and punitive actions being taken against the alleged offender,” the group said in a statement Thursday.

Maximum Fine

The new law covers features, visuals, audio recordings or “any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas.” It also applies to individuals outside of Malaysia, regardless of their nationality.

Individuals found guilty face a maximum fine of 100,000 ringgit ($24,342), or up to three years in jail, or both. Repeat offenders will be fined up to 1,000 ringgit for every day they continue the offense.

Malaysia’s authorities have opened 287 investigation papers on fake news regarding the pandemic under existing laws as of Friday, according to the government.

Malaysia first introduced legislation against fake news months before the 2018 election that saw the nation’s historic change in government. It was used to place former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad under investigation for saying that a plane due to take him on his campaign trail was tampered. The probe was later dropped, and the law repealed after Mahathir won the election.

“Our interest is the people and our interest is in fighting Covid-19 and we will do whatever it takes,” Saifuddin said. “And as much as we say we will do whatever it takes, we take cognisance of the fact that we have to be fair and just in carrying out our duties.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.