Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia’s government cut the proposed punishment in a bill prohibiting fake news from 10 to six years in prison on Thursday following an outcry from rights groups and opposition lawmakers who say it aims to silence dissent ahead of a general election.
The anti-fake news bill, presented in parliament on Monday, is being debated by lawmakers and is expected to be approved next week. In addition to imprisonment, it also calls for a fine of up to 500,000 ringgit ($128,000).
Azalina Othman, minister in charge of law, said the government decided to reduce the prison term after considering views from several parties. She told parliament that the government will also amend a clause to make it a crime to “maliciously” create fake news, instead of “knowingly” in the original draft.
Rights activists say the bill, which covers all media and extends even to foreigners outside Malaysia, appears aimed at shutting down discussions of a multibillion-dollar financial scandal involving Prime Minister Najib Razak.
They also fear the bill could be used against critics of gerrymandering or other aspects of the electoral process. Parliament on Wednesday approved controversial new constituency boundaries for national elections due in August, but widely expected in the next few weeks.
“Malaysia’s fake news bill is a blatant attempt by the government to prevent any and all news that it doesn’t like, whether about corruption or elections,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch. “The proposed law uses draconian penalties and broad language in an audacious and unprecedented effort to control discussion of Malaysia worldwide.”
Azalina denied the bill will curb free speech and said it will stop fake news from going viral, which could hurt national security and interracial harmony.
“Fake news is bad news … stories that have been fabricated or changed and spread without a conscious consideration of the impact it could have on the people,” she said, adding that the legislation will make people more responsible in publishing and sharing news.
Government officials have accused the opposition coalition of using fake news to win votes and warned that any news about the indebted 1MDB state fund that has not been verified by the government is fake.
The U.S. and several other countries are investigating allegations of cross-border embezzlement and money laundering at 1MDB, which was set up and previously led by Najib to promote economic development, but which accumulated billions in debt. The U.S. Justice Department says at least $4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB by associates of Najib, and it is working to seize $1.7 billion taken from the fund to buy assets in the U.S., potentially its largest asset seizure ever.
Najib, who denies any wrongdoing, has fired critics in his government and muzzled the media since the corruption scandal erupted three years ago.
Support for Najib’s ruling coalition has dwindled in the last two elections. In 2013, it lost the popular vote for the first time to the opposition. Yet analysts say Najib is expected to win a third term due to infighting in the opposition, the unfavorable electoral boundary changes and strong support for the government among rural ethnic Malays.
Other Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore and the Philippines, have also proposed laws to clamp down on fake news.