Too vague, too harsh, say rights groups on anti-fake news bill

PETALING JAYA: Human rights groups have hit out at the proposed anti-fake news law, voicing concern over its vagueness and severity of punishment.

Amnesty International said the Anti-Fake News Bill 2018 tabled in the Dewan Rakyat yesterday was an assault on freedom of expression.

James Gomez, its director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, slammed the “vague and broad” definition of fake news, saying this, combined with the severe punishments and arbitrary arrest powers for police, showed that the law was “a blatant attempt to shield the government from peaceful criticism”.

In a statement today, he called for the bill to be scrapped immediately.

“The bill combines the worst of the cheap propaganda coming from the West and the repressive laws and policies in the East.

“With both Singapore and the Philippines considering their own ‘fake news’ legislation, we call on all countries in the region to refrain from following this dangerous trend.”

He added that Malaysia had a “long and troubling track record” of using legal means to silence dissent.

“It is no coincidence that this law has been tabled with the general election just around the corner.”

Under the anti-fake news bill, it is an offence to create, offer, publish, distribute, circulate or disseminate fake news, punishable with a fine not exceeding RM500,000, up to 10 years’ jail, or both.

It is also an offence to directly or indirectly provide financial assistance to facilitate the spread of fake news or to abet the offence.

The bill describes fake news as any news, information, data or report, which is wholly or partly false, whether in the form of features, visuals, audio recordings or any other form, capable of suggesting words or ideas.

Law reform group Lawyers for Liberty called the bill “an over broad piece of legislation that exaggerates the problem of ‘fake news'”.

“It is an extremely vague bill: it does not clearly define the malicious falsehood required for the offence, the severity of the ‘fake news’ required before attracting criminal culpability, or the defences that are open to persons accused of publishing ‘fake news’,” its executive director Eric Paulsen said.

In a statement, he voiced concern over the reach of the bill, noting that publication of ‘fake news’ also covered any dissemination of it.

“Simply put, sharing a link on social media can now be a crime if the authorities determine it to be ‘fake news’.”

He said the bill also put the burden on server hosts, forum moderators and even WhatsApp and Facebook administrators to delete content that could be false.

“Those who criticise the government, who accuse it of corruption, abuse of power and other wrongdoings, will now be expected to live up to an almost impossible burden of proof: that they must be able to justify what they are posting or sharing, lest they be charged with publishing or disseminating ‘fake news’.”

Paulsen said the extra-territorial application provided for in the bill was also worrying as it could affect foreign press or commentators who did not toe the official line when reporting on controversial issues concerning Malaysia.

“It should be noted that extra-territorial jurisdiction is not unusually invoked, save for extremely serious crimes like piracy and terrorism. This is another example of the exaggeration and overreach of the bill.

“It is clear that the bill, should it be passed, is sheer overkill and an exaggeration of the problem of ‘fake news’.”

Warning that it would be “the death knell” for freedom of speech and press in Malaysia if the bill were passed, Paulsen said it should be discarded in its entirety.

He said if the government was serious about tackling fake news, it should withdraw the bill and send it back for genuine consultation with all stakeholders, or set up a bipartisan parliamentary select committee on the issue.