MALAYSIAN PRIME Minister Najib Razak is no stranger to muzzling free expression. His government has used existing laws to prosecute bloggers and journalists for satire and criticism of Mr. Najib, who has been embroiled in an epic corruption scandal. Now the Malaysian cabinet has gone a step further, proposing a law that would impose stiff fines and jail sentences on those who publish what it deems “fake news.” The proposed law is a warning of the danger when governments decide what is true and what is not.
Mr. Najib, seeking reelection to a third term, is being investigated by several countries, including the United States, on allegations that he and close associates diverted $4.5 billion from a Malaysian government investment fund for their own use, including $730 million that ended up in accounts controlled by the prime minister. He has denied wrongdoing involving the 1Malaysia Development Berhad fund, known as 1MDB. But a surefire outcome of the law, should it be passed, would be to chill media discussion of the corruption scandal.
The legislation would define as fake news “any news, information, data and reports which are wholly or partly false, whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas.” It would cover those who create, offer, circulate, print or publish fake news or publications containing fake news, and impose a 10-year jail term, a fine of up to $128,000, or both, at the whim of the government. The law would apply to those overseas as well as inside Malaysia. A fact sheet outlining hypothetical examples includes anyone who knowingly offers false information to a blogger, as well as cases that seem to encompass acts of slander or false advertising.
We don’t take lightly the problem of truth in today’s information whirlwind. But an open society must guarantee the right to express a wide range of views, including criticism of its leaders, with very few limitations, accompanied by due process and rule of law. The Malaysian proposal looks more like a tool of arbitrary government control and intimidation. Singapore is holding hearings on a similar scheme. Other closed systems, such as China, long ago perfected the art. It is called censorship.
President Trump has championed the moniker “fake news” to mean any news report he dislikes, and to undermine the legitimacy of the news media by creating confusion over whether news is true or false. An army of people on social media likewise muddy the waters, spreading reports that are corrosive and malicious. In this environment, a free society has to be dedicated to unfettered speech, allowing it to flourish and regulating it extremely carefully. Yes, publishers, platforms and people must be vigilant for garbage and pollution in the news stream. But imposing governmental controls will only yield one thing: real fake news.
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