Should fake news be illegal? Malaysia could be among the first to penalize it

Publish a fake news story in — or about — Malaysia, and you could soon be facing a $123,000 fine and six years in jail. On Monday, April 2, the country’s parliament passed a draft of a bill that would make fake news illegal, a move that is expected to be approved by the Senate before the end of the week. The legislation is fueling an ongoing debate on whether or not social media should be government regulated — or if doing so hinders free speech.

The bill, called the Anti-Fake News Bill 2018, would mean fines up to 500,000 ringgit, which is roughly $123,000. The bill also suggests a maximum six years in jail for fake news offenders, though that’s lowered from a previously suggested ten years. The legislation applies to online publications along with social media, including visuals and audio. Alongside applying to Malaysians, fake news about the country or its citizens could also be included. CNET says that the bill would also make spreading the fake news via a click on that share or retweet button illegal as well.

Government representatives, according to Reuters, say that the law won’t hinder free speech because an independent court process would try each case and determine if the news is, in fact, fake and the penalties for publishing the false data. Azalina Othman Said, a law minister, said the goal is to protect the public from the spread of fake news.

Critics, however, are voicing concern over the bill’s potential impact on free speech. Amnesty International’s director for the Southeast Assia and Pacific regions, James Gomez, called it a “vaguely worded, catch-all bill that can be — and will be — used to crack down on peaceful government critics.”

David Kaye, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, took to Twitter to ask the government to open the law to public scrutiny before taking it any further. He suggests that the bill leaves the definition of fake news too open and that the bill is moving too quickly.

According to Reuters, other governments are considering similar fake news laws, including Singapore and the Philippines, but Malaysia is one of the first to take action on a law against fake news.

The move comes as social media networks face increasing scrutiny over fake news, bots, and other forms of abuse. Facebook recently implemented new tools against fake news, reducing the views in the news feed by around 80 percent for links proven fake by third-party fact-checking organizations. While many agree fake news is an issue, some suggest regulation while others say regulating social media would impose on rights such as free speech and freedom of the press.

While Malaysia is one of the first counties working on legislation regarding fake news, the move isn’t the first government attempt to enforce social media laws. Germany already has a law requiring social media platforms to remove hate speech.

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