Malaysian leader Najib Razak. Picture: REUTERS
Malaysian leader Najib Razak. Picture: REUTERS

Kuala Lumpur — Malaysia has approved a law against "fake news" that would provide for prison of up to six years for offenders, shrugging off critics who say it is aimed at curbing dissent and free speech before an election.

Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government secured a simple majority in parliament on Monday to pass the Anti-Fake News 2018 bill, which sets out fines of up to 500,000 ringgit (R1.4m) and a maximum six years in jail.

The first draft of the bill had proposed jail of up to 10 years.

The government said the law would not impinge on freedom of speech and cases under it would be handled through an independent court process.

"This law aims to protect the public from the spread of fake news, while allowing freedom of speech as provided for under the constitution," Law Minister Azalina Othman Said said.

The law defines fake news as "news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false" and includes features, visuals and audio recordings. It covers digital publications and social media and will apply to offenders who maliciously spread "fake news" inside and outside Malaysia, including foreigners, if Malaysia or a citizen were affected.

Co-opted by US President Donald Trump, the term "fake news" has quickly become part of the standard repertoire of leaders in authoritarian countries to describe media reports and organisations critical of them. The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, had earlier on Monday urged the government not to rush the legislation through parliament.

"I urge the government to reconsider the bill and open it up to regular and genuine public scrutiny before taking any further steps," David Kaye said in a Twitter post. Other countries in Southeast Asia, including Singapore and the Philippines, are considering how to tackle "fake news" but human rights activists fear that laws against it could be used to stifle free speech.

Malaysia is among the first few countries to introduce a law against it. Germany approved a plan in 2017 to fine social media networks if they failed to remove hateful postings.

Malaysia already has an arsenal of laws, including a colonial-era Sedition Act, that have been used to clamp down on unfavourable news and social media posts.

News reports and social media posts on a multibillion-dollar scandal have hounded Najib, who faces a tough general election in 2018 that could be called in days.