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The new face of fake news in Malaysia: A Danish visitor who made a YouTube video

Danish national Salah Salem Saleh Sulaiman arrives at a courthouse in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Associated Press)
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Salah Salem Saleh Sulaiman seems like an improbable purveyor of “fake news.”

He doesn't run a troll farm or a website designed to spread propaganda. He's not on a mission to destroy a politician or artist. He's not even a journalist.

But this week, he was sentenced to a week in jail for a YouTube video he made, the first casualty of Malaysia's “fake news” law.

The new measure makes it a crime to share “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false” online, in print or on TV. Social media users can be prosecuted for sharing an inaccurate story, even if they didn't know it was wrong at the time. Online service providers can also be held responsible for what people post on their sites.

It's the first law of its kind in the world.

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Billboards and radio announcements sponsored by the government said that the law would help officials take on a pernicious enemy. “Fake news has become a global phenomenon, but Malaysia is at the tip of the spear in trying to fight it with an anti-fake news law,” Fadhlullah Suhaimi Abdul Malek, a senior official with the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, told the New York Times. “When the American president made 'fake news' into a buzzword, the world woke up.”

But critics of the Malaysian government saw something else — intentionally vague legislation that will make it easy for politicians and leaders to get rid of stories they don't like. In effect, they say, the government has the power to decide what is and isn't true.

“We have a ministry of truth being created,” Nurul Izzah Anwar, a lawmaker from the People’s Justice Party, told the Times. Nurul Izzah's father, one of the country's most popular opposition leaders, has been in prison since 2015.

The law's opponents point out some suspicious timing — the measure was passed just months before the May elections, and while Prime Minister Najib Razak is being investigated for diverting billions of dollars from Malaysia's state investment fund.

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But Sulaiman is not a government critic. Nor did he speak about these subjects.

Sulaiman, a Danish citizen of Yemeni descent, said he had been in Malaysia for less than two weeks when he was arrested.

In the YouTube video, Sulaiman said that on April 21, he was with Hamas engineer Fadi al-Batsh when he was gunned down by two assailants on a motorcycle. Batsh was shot more than 14 times. Hamas has accused Israel's Mossad spy agency of killing Batsh, according to Al Jazeera.

Sulaiman also said that he called the police and that it took an hour for an ambulance to arrive.

But police pushed back, saying it took them only eight minutes to arrive on the scene. Malaysia's inspector general of police said a distress call arrived at 6:41 a.m. A patrol car arrived at 6:49 a.m.

Two days after he posted his video, Sulaiman was charged “with ill intent, published fake news through a video on YouTube.”

At his trial, Sulaiman told the judge that he was in Malaysia on vacation from Denmark for about two weeks. He didn't know about the new law. He apologized but was convicted of “maliciously publishing false information.”

Sulaiman was sentenced to at least a week in jail. He said he was unable to pay the $2,500 fine, which means he'll serve a month in jail instead. It's not the worst punishment Sulaiman could have faced. Offenders can be sentenced to up to six months in jail and fined $128,000.

Fake news is about to get a lot worse. That will make it easier to violate human rights — and get away with it.