The controversy over the law belies deeper issues in the country and the region more generally.
The Malaysian lawyer and human rights activist R. Sivarasa once noted, with a right mixture of sarcasm and pathos, that his country’s constitution guarantees freedom of speech, “but not freedom after speech.”
Such contortionism is now to become even more distorted as the Malaysian government this week passed a new law outlawing fake news, a piece of legislation hurried through parliament ahead of an upcoming general election and so egregious that it could be the final blow to free speech in Malaysia, which, as it is, has long been tempered with hushed tones and calculated risk.
In the Malaysian context, this fake news law is clearly predicated on silencing any criticism of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition government, particularly the 1MDB scandal, in which Prime Minister Najib Razak is accused (domestically and internationally) of stealing billions of dollars from a state-investment fund. This is especially the case considering elections that the country is expected to hold in the coming months.
Interestingly enough, this reason was actually implied by BN government ministers. “The ministry has identified several news portals that are trying to revive the 1MDB issue,” Deputy Minister for Communications and Multimedia Jailani Johari explained last month.
He went on: “While the government is trying to combat fake news here, these issues are brought up by sources from outside the country… We believe that these efforts are by certain quarters who have a political agenda and are trying to damage the prime minister’s good name.”
More honesty was forthcoming from Cabinet Minister Rahman Dahlan when he said that “even spreading [bad] news about the economy is bad. [Fake news would be] anything that is not substantive, and dangerous to the economy and security of the nation.”
As human rights groups note, the law is so general in its wording that exactly what constitutes fake news will be decided by the courts, which of late have proven to be much too compliant to the ruling party’s wishes. Indeed, the only definition offered by the law is “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false.”
But it doesn’t it say where the line is between mistakes and intentional falsehoods (given the “partly false” caveat). Nor does it specify the distinction between online gossiping and actual reporting, or how Malaysia intends to apprehend suspects not living in the country (the law also applies to foreigners not in Malaysia). Punishments for spreading fake news, not just publishing them, have been set 500,000 ringgit ($123,000) and a maximum six years in jail.
But Malaysia isn’t the only country that wants to have a final say on the semantics of truth and falsehoods. Several European nations are drafting their own bills. France, for example, wants judges to be able to remove false content from social media, but stops short of criminalizing those who spread it. The European Commission, meanwhile, proposes laws that target the social media firms, not users.
But most Southeast Asian nations, following in Malaysia’s path, have their sights firmly on those who spread alleged fake news, which could mean less free speech and more suppression. Singapore and the Philippines are already in the process of writing their own anti-fake news legislation. Thailand already criminalizes the spread of allegedly false information on the Internet.
Cambodia’s Ministry of Information held a closed-door session last month to discuss ways of curbing fake news, which the government contends is spread by supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the only viable opposition party that was dissolved in November. This comes after a leading politician from the ruling party (which is now guaranteed to win July’s general election) proposed introducing a new social media law in February.
Vietnam already has a 10,000-strong cyber-crime team, dubbed Force 47, that monitors“wrong” views expressed online. The Ministry of Public Security last June drafted a new Internet law. This could require the likes of Facebook and Google to store user data in Vietnam-based centers, which potentially puts social media users’ data in the hands of the Communist apparatchiks that have shown few signs of easing up on their restrictions on freedoms.
Myanmar’s defacto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, once a purported champion of free-speech when she held no power, is now crusading against anything critical of her unstable government. Last September, she described her country’s genocide against the Rohingya population, which has seen more than hundreds of thousands people flee the country, and untold deaths, as “fake news.”
Meanwhile Indonesia’s Communications Minister, Rudiantara, threatened this week to close down Facebook ahead of next year’s elections, chiefly over concerns about the leakage of personal data, but also about fake news.
However one looks at it, the anti-fake news agenda has clearly arrived in Southeast Asia, and Malaysia is only one case as part of this wider trend. Unless things change from where they are now, that means only one thing: less free speech for a region already stifled and tight-lipped.