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Publishers fearful as Malaysia mulls 10-year jail terms for spreading fake news

Malaysian media outlets have reacted with horror to a new government bill that could land people a 10-year jail term for spreading ‘fake news’.

The bill, which could also fine publishers up to S$160,000 for circulating or publishing news deemed ‘wholly or partly false, has been criticised as a hardline measure aimed at cracking down on dissent before the country’s general election.

One of those fearful of the repercussions is Clare Rewcastle Brown, the founder of the Sarawak Report, the investigative website which uncovered the now-infamous multibillion-dollar corruption scandal linked to the Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Speaking to Mumbrella, Rewcastle Brown described the bill as a “ludicrous” attempt to curb mentions of the PM’s links to the scandal and any other negative stories ahead of the vote.

Clare Rewcastle Brown: “The consequences for Malaysia will be dire.”

“All will be declared Fake News by the interested parties concerned… anyone who utters anything anywhere will be persecuted,” she said. “It is a great shame since the consequences for Malaysia as a stable, progressing society and economy will be dire.”

Online news portal The Malaysiakini has also criticised the potential bill as an “Orwellian nightmare”, arguing there are already enough laws to combat the spread of fake news.

Writing on the website, editor Steven Gan said: “Fake news is now whatever the government says it is. Two plus two do not make four, if the government says so. This Anti-Fake News Bill is plunging the country into an Orwellian nightmare.”

Meanwhile, Jahabar Sadiq, owner of the independent news site The Malaysian Insight, added his voice to the dissent. He argued: “What [the bill] does is simply this – it allows the authorities to shape and define what is fact and what is fiction.

Jahabar Sadiq: “It allows the authorities to shape what is fact and what is fiction”

“It allows the authorities to determine the size of the football pitch, the width and height of the goalposts, as the case may be.”

The government has claimed that the law is needed to protect public harmony and national security, and has warned that any news on the state fund scandal that is not verified by the government is fake.

If passed, the legislation could be extended to all media outside Malaysia if the country or its citizens are affected.

Other governments elsewhere in South East Asia, including Singapore and Indonesia, have also proposed laws aimed at clamping down on the spread of ‘fake news’.

In Singapore, during a committee hearing decide on potential legislation, media owners claimed the term ‘fake news’ had been hijacked as a means of undermining legitimate journalism.

Meanwhile, similar hearings have been held in the Philippines, with former boxer turned-senator Manny Pacquiao suggesting bloggers and media owners should be licensed to curb fake news.

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