Prime Minister Najib Razak has been dogged by accusations in the ongoing multibillion-dollar corruption scandal involving the indebted 1MDB state fund.
Najib has denied any wrongdoing but activists warn the law, which will need parliamentary approval, could be used to criminalise media coverage of misconduct.
The government says the proposed law will protect public harmony and national security. It has accused the opposition of using fake news to win votes and warns that any 1MDB stories that have not been verified by the government are “fake”.
The bill raised concerns that it could be used to target government critics during the election campaign, which must be held by August and is expected to be called in weeks.
The bill calls for penalties of about US$120,000 for creating, circulating or publishing fake news and it extends to overseas if Malaysian citizens were affected.
“This is an attack on the press and an attempt to instil fear” before the election, opposition MP Ong Kian Ming tweeted.
The proposed legislation defines “fake news” as “any news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false, whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas”.
Opponents said the anti-fake news bill would add to other repressive laws, including legislation on sedition, the press and publications act, an official secrets act and a security act, that have been used against opponents of the government, violated freedom of expression and undermined media freedom.
Analysts have warned that the lack of clarity on how the legislation would be enforced could lead to abuse.
“Malaysia has a long and troubling track record of using its legal books to silence dissent,” said James Gomez, Amnesty International’s Asean chief.
“It is no coincidence that this law has been tabled with general elections just around the corner.”
Other analysts saw the legislation as an attempt to gag dissenters.
“The danger is that this new bill, without stronger legal definitions and clearer safeguards, is just another tool for the Malaysian authorities to drag any critical comments under the rubric of fake news,” said Champa Patel of the UK think tank Chatham House.
“Malaysia already has a range of repressive laws used to undermine free speech… that have been used to silence the media, opposition figures and critics of the current government,” she added.
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