Former Malaysian prime minister and opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad may be facing prosecution under a controversial new law designed to tackle fake news.
CNN  — 

Mahathir Mohamad, the former Malaysian prime minister turned opposition leader, is being investigated under a controversial anti-fake news law over a claim his plane was sabotaged, police have said.

Kuala Lumpur police chief Mazlan Lazim told reporters Wednesday a “fake news” case had been opened regarding Mahathir’s claim, according to Malaysian state news agency Bernama.

A spokesman for Mahathir said they had seen the reports based on a police report, but had not heard directly from the authorities that he was under investigation.

Police reportedly opened an investigation into Mahathir after he claimed his plane was sabotaged on a campaign trip in the run up to next week’s general election. At the age of 92, Mahathir made a surprise political comeback, jettisoning his former party in an attempt to wrest control from Prime Minister Najib Razak.

The country’s Civil Aviation Authority said in a statement Saturday it had found “no indication whatsoever of any sabotage” of Mahathir’s plane.

“Allegations of sabotage against an aircraft are extremely serious, and could impact the reputation of Malaysian aviation and the country as a whole,” the statement added.

Police did not immediately respond to CNN request for comment.

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

Controversial law

Passed last month, the Anti-Fake News Law 2018 makes it an offense to create, publish or disseminate any fake news or publication containing fake news.

Those found guilty under the law can face up to six years in prison and fines of up to $130,000.

The government has justified it as necessary for state security, but the law has been roundly criticized by human rights groups and opposition lawmakers.

Zaid Ibrahim, a former minister in charge of legal affairs, said the law was connected to the ongoing IMDB scandal, which has seen Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak accused of misappropriating massive amounts of money.

“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 last month.

Ahead of the bill’s passage into law, Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch director, called it a “blatant attempt by the government to prevent any and all news that it doesn’t like, whether about corruption or elections.”

“(The Law) uses draconian penalties and broad language in an audacious and unprecedented effort to control discussion of Malaysia worldwide,” he added.

Malaysians go to the polls on May 9, in a surprisingly tight general election.

Uncertainty over future

It is currently unclear what stage the fake news case against Mahathir has reached, police would not respond to extra requests for comment. A spokesman for Mahathir said they had not received any extra information.

James Chin, director of the Asia Institute Tasmania at Australia’s University of Tasmania, said he doubted whether the government will pursue the case before the May 9 polling day for fear of sparking a backlash and spurring opposition support.

“If they’re going to get him, they’ll get him after the election, not during the campaign,” he added. “The price they would pay is too high.”

According to Reuters, a recent poll suggests Najib could retain power with a parliamentary majority, but lose the popular vote, as in 2013, thanks to Malaysia’s first past the post (FPP) electoral system, whereby the candidate in each constituency with the most votes wins the seat.

“The majority of voters are in urban areas, and urban areas tend to be anti-government,” Chin said. “By default you will have a majority of the voters, but under first past the post, it’s not the popular vote that is important.”

CNN’s Angus Watson contributed reporting.