The Malaysian government instituted an ordinance against “fake news” on Friday in an effort to crack down on misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, according to multiple news outlets in the region. Anyone prosecuted for spreading fake news faces a maximum fine of 100,000 ringgit (roughly $24,000 US) and up to three years in prison.
The ordinance makes it a crime for anyone who “creates, offers, publishes, prints, distributes, circulates or disseminates any fake news” that would cause fear in the public, according to the Jakarta Post. The only problem is that “fake news” isn’t defined in any meaningful sense, leading human rights advocates to worry the new ordinance will be widely abused.
The Malaysian government cited emergency powers granted in January under the covid-19 health crisis that allowed the ordinance to take effect Friday without the approval of Malaysia’s parliament. In fact, parliament has been suspended until August under the emergency law.
Malaysia, a country of about 32 million people, has identified over 319,000 cases of covid-19 since the pandemic began, with 1,200 deaths, according to the latest figures on Friday. Malaysian health care workers have given 249,909 doses of coronavirus vaccine ever since the vaccination program was rolled out on Feb. 24, according to the Star.
The 73-year-old Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, a conservative nationalist who came to power under strange circumstances that didn’t involve a popular vote, has been in office for less than a year. Muhyiddin somehow convinced Malaysia’s king, Al-Sultan Abdullah, that he was the rightful prime minister, ousting his opponent in parliament, and that was that.
As the Jakarta Post notes, the term “fake news” isn’t defined in the ordinance, leaving it up to prosecutors to figure out who may have broken the law. And if Muhyiddin’s recent ascent to power is any guide, there’s bound to be plenty of abuse and overreach along the way.