The Malaysian parliament’s passage of a controversial anti-“fake news” law is attracting widespread condemnation from civil society groups and international rights bodies including Amnesty International, which called it an “assault on freedom of expression.”
Nonetheless, ignoring international criticism, 123 government MPs voted to expedite the bill through the committee process with extraordinary speed. The measure mandates up to six years in prison and a maximum fine of RM500,000 (US$129,300). It was passed in Parliament on a straight party-line vote, with 64 opposition votes against.
The bill supposedly was passed to “promote national security.” But its purpose is more to protect a kleptocratic government that has been reliably accused of the misuse of at least US$4.5 billion in the scandal over the state-backed 1 Malaysia Development Bhd. The US Justice Department has been sequestering assets owned by members of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s family and close friends amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars.
In addition, after 60 years plus in power, the Barisan Nasional, led by Najib’s United Malays National Organization, is a tired, bloated, vastly corrupt and ineffective government that has perpetuated itself in power via bribery of members of parliament, rent-seeking contracts to oligarchs, a kept and sycophantic press, malleable courts and a cynical amplification of religious and ethnic divisions in the country.
The government faces an opposition insurrection for the 14th general election, which is likely to be held before early June, with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, at the age of 92, wrathfully campaigning at the head of a seemingly revitalized opposition in the effort to bring down Najib and UMNO. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, called prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, functions as a conspicuous martyr due to be freed from more than three years in prison in early June.
Without a reliable press and scarce polling, it is difficult to know how well the opposition is doing. Parti Islam se-Malaysia, the fundamentalist rural party that was a major part of the 2013 general election coalition, has split in half, with the major fundamentalist component appearing to side with the government. In 2013 PAS, as the party is known, boosted the opposition, which won 50.89 percent of the votes against 47.38 for the government.
However, the first-past-the-post system and deep gerrymandering kept the opposition from power, with the Barisan taking 133 seats against only 89 for the opposition. According to Chan Tsu Chong, the “outreach officer” for the election watchdog Bersih, gerrymandering has intensified to the point where the government could theoretically return to power with just 16.5 percent of the popular vote.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, vainly demanding that the fake news bill be withdrawn, said the government's “justification that this bill is to promote national security is laughable. The authorities already have an arsenal of laws dating back to the colonial era to do that. This legislation is designed to intimidate independent and muckraking journalists at a time when allegations of widespread corruption are swirling around members of the political and business establishment."
Daniel Bastard, the head of Reporters Without Borders’ Asia-Pacific desk, said the bill “contributes nothing new to the fight against the dissemination of deliberately false information and would pose an additional threat to media freedom, which is already drastically suppressed by existing laws. The concept of ‘fake news’ used in this bill is much too vague to be subject to such heavy penalties.”
Bastard said the government had already begun to transform itself into a Ministry of Truth – a reference to George Orwell’s 1948 dystopian novel 1984 in which the Ministry of Truth is where lies are manufactured by rewriting news articles to reflect the government’s version of reality and throwing the old articles down a “memory hole” in which they are incinerated. Bastard’s Malaysian reference was to the government’s creation of a “news checking” online platform called Sebenarnya.my to denounce and “correct” what authorities deemed fake news.
The law also allows for charges against other nationalities and news organizations outside Malaysia if the purportedly fake news involves Malaysian citizens. That has been interpreted as a weapon against news organizations including Sarawak Report, edited and reported from the UK by Clare Rewcastle Brown, and Asia Sentinel, as well as Cambodia-based Malaysian academic Din Merican and others. The three have all been blocked in Malaysia.
Outside Malaysia, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, the Guardian and The Economist have all published voluminous, detailed stories about the US Justice Department’s investigation of the 1MDB case.
The concept of “fake news” originated with US President Donald Trump, who has been caught in more than 2,000 untruths since he filed for office in 2016 but has steadfastly accused almost the entire mainstream news media of manufacturing fake news when they called him on them. The idea of punishing news organizations has since spread to Singapore, the Philippines and other countries.
In March, Malaysian Deputy Minister Jailani Johari said the government would act against foreign media which widely published what Jailani called “fake news” after US Federal Bureau of Administration officials, cooperating with Indonesian officials, seized the US$250 million superyacht Equanimity off Bali. The yacht was the property of Low Taek Jho, the Penang-born financial whiz who helped Najib to establish 1MDB and is believed to have helped the Prime Minister and his family loot it.
Najib himself has been caught in decades of lies relating to criminal activity. He said he was willing to swear on the Quran "Wallahi, Wabillahi, Watallahi (With Allah as my witness) that he didn’t know or have any connection with Altantuya Shaariibuu, a Mongolian translator and party girl murdered for money by two of his bodyguards, who were convicted of the crime.
When the international press began to report in detail how US$681 million of money stolen from 1MDB ended up in his own personal account at Ambank in Kuala Lumpur, he blamed Mahathir Mohamad for working with “foreign nationals” including Sarawak Report to discredit him. He declared that the money had been given to him by unnamed members of the Saudi royal family although the evidence amassed by US prosecutors conclusively indicated it had come from 1MDB. He insisted he would sue the Wall Street Journal for defamation over the newspaper’s reporting on 1MDB but has never done so.
He sacked a long list of public officials including his own deputy prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, as well as Attorney General Abdul Ghani Patail, the deputy head of Special Branch and others for questioning his actions in creating and operating 1MDB.
Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Kerouac blogged that the Malaysian government "will not hesitate to take the necessary steps ahead of our imminent election to ensure that the well of democracy is not irretrievably poisoned with lies, falsehoods, smears and supposition."