By: John Berthelsen

If there was any doubt what the draconian “fake news” bill passed by Malaysia’s parliament was about, it has been pretty much put to rest by a statement by Mazlan Ismail, the chief operating officer of the country’s Communications and Multimedia Commission that 1,500 news stories are being investigated by the authorities.

On April 4, the parliament passed the controversial law over objections from civil society groups and international rights bodies including Amnesty International, which called it an “assault on freedom of expression.” The measure mandates up to six years in prison and a maximum fine of RM500,000 (US$129,300) and is aimed at not only domestic critics but international ones as well such as Asia Sentinel and the Sarawak Report, both of which have been banned from internet circulation in the country,

Critics complain that there are no criteria for determining what constitutes “fake news” other than what the government deems to be fake news.

Although the bill was passed to “promote national security,” according to government officials, opponents said its real purpose is to protect the government in advance of the 14th general election, which is scheduled to be held May 9. The government is struggling to protect itself from criticism over allegations of the misuse of at least US$4.5 billion from the state-backed 1 Malaysia Development Bhd. The US Justice Department has sequestered an estimated US$1.2 billion of assets owned by members of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s family and close friends.

The government faces an insurrection led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is leading a seemingly energized 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.

Virtually all criticism has been stilled, with the mainstream media in the hands of political parties aligned with the government.  However, Malaysia has one of the most energetic social media in Southeast Asia, with dozens of websites criticizing the government and alluding to a long list of scandals perpetrated by the Barisan Nasional and its leading political party, the United Malays National Organization.

The communications ministry’s Mazlan Ismail said 99 per cent of the false news originated from locals staying in Malaysia.

“The remaining one per cent are from Malaysians who have migrated in countries such as Sweden and Australia,” he told reporters at the launch of MCMC’s Malaysian ICT Volunteer with Institutes of higher education.  He charged that critics ae using “fake social media accounts” to spread criticism, according to an April 18 story in the Straits Times, which is owned by the United Malays National Organization.

“A majority of these false news came from fake accounts or anonymous accounts,” he said. “Once the false news has become viral shared through various platforms like Facebook, they will immediately shut down the accounts. It is like a guerilla warfare. At least 30 percent of the fake news is being disseminated in such manner.”

The communications ministry on April 17 accused “certain movements” of using the social media or Internet, “to actively spread propaganda of contempt against the government,” saying the certain movements were “like `factories’ churning false news with its primary aim to dispute the integrity and efficiency of the government, as well as targeting the Malays and Islam.”

Mazlan told reporters it is difficult to identify the “mastermind to the offence since false news could be disseminated by anyone with internet access. In the past, such `factories’ will have offices. Now, these factories can be in someone’s bedroom or at any place.”

One blogger, in an email to Asia Sentinel, suggested that the communications ministry investigate Najib himself since he has delivered several demonstrably false statements including threatening to sue the Wall Street Journal in 2015, said the US$681 million that appeared in his personal bank account came from Saudi royalty, and many others. 

Action has been taken against more than 40 people for improper use of network facilities or network service and 10 have been charged in court, according to the Communications Ministry. 

“We are in the process to remove 4,618 fake social media accounts which spread false news, based on the respective social media platform’s terms and conditions.,” a ministry official told the Straits Times.  “A small number of false news, however, were originally spread in foreign countries, but have been translated and adapted to Malaysian context by irresponsible parties.”