By: Our Correspondent

Thirteen civil reform organizations have issued a joint letter expressing alarm about the Malaysian government’s intent to table a new law next week to counter what is called “fake news,” which the critics call a not-so-subtle crackdown on dissent in advance of elections expected to be held before June 24.

In doing so, the civic groups join members of the opposition and technology leaders including Apple, Google and Facebook in expressing concern.  Earlier this week, a similar call of apprehension was issued in Singapore, where a 10-day hearing is looking into the fake news issue.

Malaysia already has long had a series of draconian laws on its books to go after critics, including a sedition law, a stiff press and publications act, an official secrets act and a public security act. Government official have used them all against critics over the past two to three years.

The new bill, if adopted, “will add to a range of repressive laws that have been used to violate the right to freedom of expression and undermine media freedom in Malaysia,” said the civic groups. “We urge the government to drop the proposed bill, which we believe is yet another attempt to stifle debate and criminalize those who speak out against corruption and human rights violations.”

With a heavy majority in the Dewan Rakyat, or parliament, it is unlikely that the government would drop the bill.

The term fake news has become a dog-whistle issue across not just Southeast Asia but with many repressive government after US President Donald Trump, under fire by the Democratic opposition and the press for a huge number of misstatements, prevarications and outright lies since he began his presidential campaign in 2016, branded almost all of the US’s mainstream media as purveyors of fake news in describing his actions. Cambodian dictator Hun Sen, who has muzzled the press in his country, earlier this week became the latest to applaud Trump’s description. It has become a bandwagon for a long list of minor satraps, crooked government leaders and other hucksters across the globe.

The open letter was led by Article 19, a global organization headquartered in the UK whose stated mission is to defend freedom of expression and freedom of information. The others are Aliran, the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism, the Center for Independent Journalism, the World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Diversity, the Malaysian Academic Force Movement, Justice for Sisters, the Campaign for Equality and Human Rights Initiative, the Selangor Community Awareness Association, Project Dialog, the Sinar Project and Suaram.

Among other organizations expressing concern on  branding criticism as fake news, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media, the Organization of American States (OAS) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, which on March 3 issued a joint declaration expressing similar concerns.

“In the context of the impending general elections, we are concerned that the “fake news” bill could be used as a dragnet to criminalize reporting on government misconduct, the expression of critical opinions, and the speech of the political opposition,” the 13 organizations said in a prepared release. “Compounding these concerns are the inadequate constitutional protections for freedom of expression in Malaysia. Malaysian authorities have selectively prosecuted Malaysian opposition politicians, human rights defenders and journalists under existing laws for exercising their right to freedom of expression.”

The proposed bill, ratified earlier this week by the cabinet, is expected to be acted on by the parliament next week.  Although the government denied it affects freedom of expression, as protected by the Malaysian Constitution, the protesters said the “notion of ‘fake news’ is extremely vague and open to arbitrary interpretation, and legislation criminalizing or otherwise censoring fake news will likely give the authorities extensive powers to determine what information the public may access.”

They complained that “Laws presented as attempts to protect the public from misinformation can often act as tools for governments to restrict the presentation of dissenting views or ideas, and ultimately violate the right to freedom of expression.”

“We are also concerned by the government’s lack of transparency regarding the bill,” according to the open letter. “The government has excluded key stakeholders from among civil society and the human rights community from consultations regarding the bill and has not published the proposed legislation. Any efforts to genuinely tackle the spread of misinformation online must be approached in a transparent, consultative manner, and avoid broad criminal restrictions on speech.”

Malaysia, they pointed out, has failed to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protects the right to freedom of expression, international standards require that restrictions on freedom of expression on the supposed basis of national security or public order must be clearly set out in law, and necessary and proportionate to protect those aims.”

In an ironic twist, the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia warned of “stern actions” against those “propagating and spreading fake news” in relation to the 1 Malaysia Development Bhd scandal, that has snared Prime Minister Najib Razak, his wife and members of the family despite the fact that US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has called the 1MDB scandal the biggest kleptocracy case ever prosecuted by the US Justice Department. Hundreds of millions of dollars in property have been recovered, including, earlier this month, the US$300 million mega-yacht Equanimity, seized in Bali. Its owner Low Taek Jho, the Penang-born whiz kid who helped Najib set up 1MDB, has made himself scarce.