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Abolition of fake news laws delayed in Malaysia; Singapore still awaits government report

Opposition politicians have blocked the repeal of anti fake news laws in Malaysia, with experts believing it could be a year before the highly controversial legislation is finally abolished.

The ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition scrapped the laws in August, four months after former prime minister Najib Razak introduced legislation that imposed fines of 500,000 ringgit (S$166,000) and up to six months jail for spreading what the then government deemed as fake news.

The laws, which had been hurriedly pushed through by Razak, were regarded by critics as a blatant attempt to limit criticism of the government and muzzle free speech in the run up to elections.

Scrapping the draconian legislation had been one of the pre-election pledges of prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, a promise he duly delivered last month.

But in Malaysia’s upper house, the Barisan Nasional (BN) party, which makes up the majority of senators in the Dewan Negara, rejected the Anti-Fake news abolition bill.

A constitutional expert, professor Dr Shamrahayu A. Aziz, told Malaysian daily The Star that while it would only delay the repeal of the bill, it may take up to 12 months before it was finally abolished.

The government said it was a politically motivated vote that would have a “serious, negative impact” on the country.

But one BN senator, Khairul Azwan Harun said fake news was an on-going problem that needed addressing. Rather than scrapping the law, it should be improved, he said.

“I understand that this is very unpopular law, but we must also recognise that we live in a world of fast information,” he said in a statement. “This anti-fake news law should be a protection for the common man, against interests, either local or foreign, that aim to embroil our society in endless, unproductive confrontation.”

He added: “The threat is real and I fear our political landscape is too young to be further polarised because of fake news.”

The issues in Malaysia come as Singapore still awaits the publication of a Government report following the Select Committee hearing earlier this year on Deliberate Online Falsehoods.

Senior ministers said in June they were in “no rush” to impose fake news laws in Singapore, with Singapore minister of communications and information Dr Janil Puthucheary saying any laws need to be “correct in terms of its scope, its intent, its powers”.

Professor Cherian George, an academic at the department of journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University, told Mumbrella the Singapore Government has been “at pains to consult and study the matter in some depth”.

Cherian George: I don’t expect any proposed legislation to be as shoddy as Malaysia’s

“I don’t expect any proposed legislation to be as shoddy as Malaysia’s, which was rammed through with barely any discussion,” he said. “What should give the government pause though, is that the facts on the ground keep changing.

“The platforms are already under enormous pressure in the United States and Europe, and they are being forced to adapt their practices. Any law Singapore enacts to regulate internet platforms is going to be based on a snapshot of a moment in time that may be history within a year.

“Although the government prides itself in swift action, this is a case where it makes more sense to wait and see.”

The editor-in-chief of The Straits Times, Warren Fernandez, told a panel discussion in June that it would not offer a “blank cheque” of support to the government until the full extent of the laws were known.

Warren Fernandez

“We have looked at the laws that we have and the government has quite considerable powers, but there are gaps in those powers,” he said. “If a law is drafted, which is narrowly focused on addressing content distributors and getting them to take responsibility for some of their content we would support it.

“But general broad-sweep legislation, we have concerns with. There are legitimate concerns in the newsroom. We don’t want legislation that is so sweeping and so broad that it impedes the flow of information and hampers our ability to put out good information.”

Several groups in Singapore launched a fight against potential legislation, arguing there was simply no need to introduce new laws.

 

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