PERTH, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 03:  Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak looks on as Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston commence his briefing about the search mission for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 at RAAF base Pearce on April 3, 2014 in Perth, Australia. The search continues off the Western Australian coast for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 that vanished on March 8 with 239 passengers and crew on board. The flight is suspected to have crashed into the southern Indian Ocean with no survivors.  (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)
Malaysia's anti-fake news bill sparks concern
03:40 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Is an anti-fake news law proposed in Malaysia really designed to protect the country’s citizens, or is it just a way for the government to clamp down on the media and stifle free speech?

With elections around the corner and a years-long financial scandal plaguing Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, many within the country’s media, legal fraternity and civil society are worried about the government’s intent in introducing the bill.

The proposed Anti-Fake News Bill 2018 will give the government sweeping powers to hit those it deems guilty of creating or spreading fake news with jail terms of up to six years and fines that could as high as $130,000.

It is expected to be easily passed next week as Najib’s ruling coalition has a majority in the country’s 222-seat parliament and is but the latest example of how the phrase championed by US President Donald Trump has been adopted and used by leaders across Asia.

BEIJING, CHINA - NOVEMBER 9:  U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping (not shown) make a joint statement at the Great Hall of the People on November 9, 2017 in Beijing, China. Trump is on a 10-day trip to Asia.  (Photo by Thomas Peter-Pool/Getty Images)
Trump's impact on press freedom in Asia
04:35 - Source: CNN

At the heart of the problem is a broad definition of what constitutes fake news and who an offender could be.

The bill defines fake news as “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false,” and an offender as somebody who by any means “knowingly creates, offers, publishes, prints, distributes, circulates or disseminates any fake news or publication containing fake news.”

Particularly concerning to international media is that the proposed law will also give the Malaysian government extra-territorial reach – an offender need not be either Malaysian or in Malaysia for the law to apply, as long as the fake news “concerns Malaysia or … a Malaysian citizen.”

In February, de facto law minister Azalina Othman Said said the government is prioritizing the bill because fake news threatens national security.

Azalina rejected claims the law would be another tool used by the authorities to crack down on dissent, saying it would protect all parties, government and opposition alike.

‘Legislative overkill’

However, Zaid Ibrahim, a former minister in charge of legal affairs, was blunt in his assessment of the bill.

“This law is necessary for Najib, but not the country. He needs this to put fear in people, that they can go to jail if they criticize him,” he told CNN.

Calling it “useful for the elections,” Zaid said political campaigners are already becoming wary of what they say, even though the bill hasn’t even been passed yet.

He added that the 1MDB scandal – which has seen Najib accused of misappropriating massive amounts of money – has “everything to do” with the anti-fake news bill.

The scandal has made numerous headlines in the international media, and Zaid said Najib will apply the new law to protect himself and try “everything possible to put a stop to the 1MDB investigation.”

“We are the most oppressive country in the world,” he said.

The former minister is not the only person who has come out against the bill. Najib’s own brother, Nazir Razak, chairman of the CIMB banking group, has taken to social media to call for it be deferred.

The Malaysian Bar Council has also urged that the bill be withdrawn, with its president George Varughese saying the organization is “deeply troubled” by the proposed legislation, and calling it “legislative overkill.”

Crackdown on satire

Varughese said since the proposed law criminalizes fake news but does not clearly define it, it could be used to suppress freedom of expression.

“The wording of the provisions is sufficiently wide for an action to be brought challenging ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ views on, for example, economy, history, politics, science and religion,” he said in a statement.

He added the proposed legislation does not deal with a situation if the government publishes “fake news.”

Speaking to CNN, Varughese highlighted the international ramifications of the law, saying if an alleged offender is in a country with whom Malaysia has an extradition treaty, it’s possible for that person to be sent there for punishment.

“Also they run the risk of being arrested and charged the moment they set foot in Malaysia,” he added.