Malaysia Seeks Prison Term to Fight Fake News Ahead of Election

(Bloomberg) -- Malaysia is seeking to fight fake news with a punishment of up to 10 years in prison as it prepares for an election that must be held by August.

Those creating and distributing false information will be subject to imprisonment or up to 500,000 ringgit ($128,000) fine, or both, according to the bill submitted to parliament on Monday. The law will apply to anyone inside or outside Malaysia, regardless of nationality or citizenship, as long as the fake news concerns the country or its citizens.

The bill follows Prime Minister Najib Razak’s launch of a website, called TheRakyat or "The People" in January. The portal is aimed at battling the opposition coalition and fake news, which he said damaged the ruling party’s campaign in the 2013 general election. He cited rumors of power outages at voting booths and the suggestion that some votes were therefore not counted in the previous ballot. His alliance, Barisan Nasional, lost the popular vote for the first time in 2013.

Human rights groups and opposition parties have spoken out against the bill. The Asia Internet Coalition, which counts Google and Facebook Inc. among its members, cautioned that discerning whether information is true can be subjective, and the law risks compromising access to information and the exchange of ideas.

The government sees reports on state investment firm 1Malaysia Development Bhd. that aren’t verified by the authorities as fake news, Deputy Communications and Multimedia Minister Jailani Johari said last week. The fund is at the center of a global probe involving allegations of hundreds of millions of dollars flowing through and around 1MDB as well as into personal accounts, including that of Najib and his family. Najib has denied wrongdoing, while the fund maintains that it has lost no money.

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