Kuala Lumpur: Malaysia’s government passed the “Anti-Fake News Bill 2018” in April, making both creating and sharing fake news punishable by up to six years in prison. It was seen as a way for then-Prime Minister Najib Razak to quell political dissent.
Just over a month later, Malaysia has a new Prime Minister in Mahathir Mohamad. But he’s not in a rush to do away with the fake-news bill, despite being the victim of it just weeks ago.
“Although we support the concept of press freedom and freedom of speech, these come with limits,” Mahathir said in a telecast, according to The Associated Press. “If anyone purposely tries to cause chaos, they will have to face specific laws that curtail those acts.
“We will have a clear definition of fake news so that the public and media companies will understand the difference between real and fake news,” Mahathir said.
Salah Salem Saleh Sulaiman, a Danish national in the country, became the first person to be convicted under the country’s fake-news law in early May.
Sulaiman’s conviction was based on a video he posted to YouTube accusing the police of taking 50 minutes to respond to distress calls following a shooting in Kuala Lumpur on April 21. Police refuted the allegations, saying they took eight minutes to respond. In court, Sulaiman apologized for the video, admitting he was mistaken, according to Reuters.
Prime Minister Mahathir was himself targeted by the bill, accused earlier this month of spreading fake news by saying he suspected a private plane set to fly him across the country had been sabotaged. Just prior to takeoff, the pilot found damage to the plane.
Mahathir, 92, was sworn in as Malaysian president on May 10 after defeating Najib Razak, who had been embroiled in a corruption scandal since 2015 over $700 million in state-investment funds that had been funneled into his personal bank accounts.
Malaysia has a history of curtailing freedom of expression and freedom of press. Last year the country was ranked 144 out of 188 listed countries in Reporters Without Borders’ Worldwide Freedom of Press Index. Violent and sexual imagery is banned from Malaysia’s internet and TV broadcasts, but reports from organizations like Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Open Observatory of Network Interference show various sites have been shut down for political reasons.