Malaysia has repealed a controversial anti-fake news law, which has been widely condemned for stifling free speech since its introduction in April.
The law, created by former Prime Minister Najib Razak, made it an offense to create, publish or disseminate any fake news or any publication containing fake news. Those found guilty faced up to six years in prison and fines of up to $130,000.
Current Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who was one of the first people investigated under the new law, defeated Najib in a stunning election in May.
During his campaign, Mahathir promised to repeal the law and he delivered on that promise Thursday, when the Malaysian parliament passed the Anti-Fake News (Repeal) Bill 2018, according to state media Bernama.
The news was met with a warm welcome from press freedom groups and advocates.
Teddy Brawner Baguilat, a board member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, called the decision “a huge step forward for human rights in Malaysia.”
“This is a law that was clearly designed to silence criticism of the authorities and to quell public debate – it should never have been allowed to pass in the first place.”
Free speech controversy
Najib had rammed the bill through Parliament days before it dissolved and elections were called, and with Najib’s ruling coalition holding a parliamentary majority, the bill was easily passed.
It defined fake news as “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false,” and an offender as somebody who by any means “knowingly creates, offers, publishes, prints, distributes, circulates or disseminates any fake news or publication containing fake news.”
The law also raised international concerns, as it gave Malaysian government extra-territorial reach – foreigners, too, could be prosecuted if the fake news “concerns Malaysia or … a Malaysian citizen.”
Najib’s government justified the move as necessary for state security, but many within the country’s media, legal fraternity and civil society expressed alarm that it could be used to punish dissenting or satirical voices.
“This law is necessary for Najib, but not the country. He needs this to put fear in people, that they can go to jail if they criticize him,” Zaid Ibrahim, a former minister in charge of legal affairs, told CNN in April.
Ahead of the bill’s passage into law, Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, called it a “blatant attempt by the government to prevent any and all news that it doesn’t like, whether about corruption or elections.”
Even Najib’s own brother, Nazir Razak, chairman of the CIMB banking group, called for it to be deferred.
“This is about basic rights of individual expression, and instilling fear of such draconian punishment based on ambiguous definitions, will retard our society,” he wrote on Instagram.