A leading Malaysian news portal mounted a legal challenge Friday against a law aimed at combating “fake news”, which critics fear will be used to stifle dissent before elections next month.
Parliament earlier in April passed the legislation, which makes the dissemination of deliberately misleading information punishable by up to six years in jail and a hefty fine.
The government has argued it will safeguard the public, but the opposition claims it is aimed at silencing criticism of Prime Minister Najib Razak and the scandal surrounding state fund 1MDB ahead of the May 9 poll.
Malaysiakini, one of a host of websites that have become popular by reporting on official wrongdoing and corruption, filed an application for a judicial review of the law in Kuala Lumpur High Court.
The site said it was the first legal challenge against the law. “We believe that this law shouldn’t stand, it is against the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech,” Malaysiakini CEO Premesh Chandran told AFP.
A good cause
“We believe we have a good case.” The case was filed through the site’s company Mkini Dotcom. Malaysiakini and other independent news sites have flourished in recent years, filling a void left by government-controlled newspapers and TV stations, but they have been regularly targeted by the authorities.
The law covers any information that is deemed to be “wholly or partly fake”. It includes several examples, such as a blogger publishing a report known to be false; someone sharing information on social media they know to be false; and someone giving a speech containing information they know to be untrue.
Critics say it is too broad and vague, and effectively allows authorities to define what is fake news, although the government insists all cases will go through an independent court process.
It even stipulates that publishers of fake news, including foreigners, can be punished for articles produced abroad. Human Rights Watch has slammed the law as a “blatant attempt by the government to prevent any and all news that it doesn’t like”.
Malaysia is one of several Asian countries seeking to crack down on false reports after taking inspiration from US President Donald Trump’s fulminations against fake news.