KUALA LUMPUR (March 12): The federal government has gazetted an ordinance that seeks to criminalise "fake news" relating to Covid-19 and the Emergency proclamation, with stiff penalties for offenders.

Effective today (March 12), those who spread fake news "by any means, with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause fear or alarm to the public" could be fined up to RM100,000 or jailed up to three years, or both, if found guilty.

The Emergency (Essential Powers) (No 2) Ordinance 2021 also states that the court may order the removal of a publication if it is determined to be "fake news", failing which the court may order the police or an authorised officer to do so.

The court may order perpetrators to issue an apology, and failure to do so may result in an additional fine of up to RM50,000, a jail term of under a year, or both.

The ordinance defines fake news as any news, information, data and report "which is wholly or partly false relating to Covid-19 or the proclamation of emergency, whether in the forms of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas".

In the event of a continuing offence, perpetrators could face a further fine not exceeding RM1,000 for every day during which the offence continues after conviction.

Additionally, the ordinance states that the law applies to any person involved in the dissemination of fake news both within the country and abroad, regardless of nationality, if the fake news affects Malaysia or a Malaysian citizen.

CIJ calls for immediate withdrawal of ordinance

The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ)  has called on Putrajaya to immediately withdraw the new law, saying it is deeply shocked by the decision to criminalise "fake news".

In a statement, the CIJ said the government should stop using the Emergency proclamation to stifle any criticism of the current administration.

"Without the necessary parliamentary checks and balances, the unfettered powers given to the current administration under the Emergency Proclamation and the Emergency (Essential Powers) (No 2) Ordinance 2021 foretells the continued attempts by this government to use any means possible to undermine our fundamental rights and freedoms," said CIJ executive director Wathshlah Naidu.

What is equally alarming, Wathshlah said, is the opportunistic nature of the government, under the guise of an Emergency, to reintroduce specific elements of the Anti-Fake News Act 2018, which was repealed by the previous Pakatan Harapan administration.

She said "fake news" is not clearly defined by the law, opening the real possibilities of abuse through arbitrary arrests, investigations and punitive actions being taken against the alleged offender.

"We anticipate further surveillance and invasions of our privacy, arbitrary censorships of critical and dissenting media reports, and thus, attacks on media freedom, and disproportionate crackdowns on legitimate speech such as dissent and misinformation," she added.

Wathshlah said the arbitrary use of the ordinance will go against the fundamental norms of freedom of expression and speech as enshrined in the Federal Constitution and international standards, which clearly stipulate that the public has the right to know, seek and receive, as well as to impart ideas and information of all kinds.

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