26 March, 2018
Malaysia's government has proposed new laws aimed at banning fake, or false, news.
Punishments for those breaking the laws include a 10-year jail sentence and large fines.
Some people have called the proposed laws an attempt to severely limit criticism of the government before the general election.
Prime Minister Najib Razak is currently facing questions about billions of dollars missing from a state investment fund.
Human rights activists are concerned the new laws could be used to make reports on government wrongdoing and critical opinions illegal.
The general election is required to be held by August. But observers expect it to be held in the next few weeks.
The anti-fake news bills call for punishing those who create, offer, spread, print or publish false news or publications containing false news. Those found guilty could face a 10-year prison sentence, a fine of more than $128,000 or both.
The bill defines fake news as "any news, information, data and reports which is, or 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."
The law, as it is written, extends to foreigners outside Malaysia as long as Malaysia or its citizens are affected.
Opposition lawmaker Ong Kian Ming reacted to the proposed laws on Twitter. He wrote, "This is an attack on the press and an attempt to instill fear among the (people)."
Government officials have said the law is needed to protect the public harmony and national security. They have accused the opposition coalition of using fake news as a weapon to win votes.
The officials also warned that any news about the Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, state fund that is not approved by the government is false.
The government fund plans long-term investments for the country. The United States and several other countries are investigating claims of corruption and illegal money exchanges at 1MDB.
Prime Minister Najib created the fund to support economic development. It has gathered billions of dollars in debt instead.
The U.S. Justice Department says people connected to Najib stole at least $4.5 billion from 1MDB. The department is working to seize $1.7 billion taken from the fund to buy assets in the United States. The move could be the largest U.S. asset seizure.
Najib denies any wrongdoing. He has dismissed critics in his government and restricted the media since news of the corruption appeared three years ago.
Support for Najib's ruling coalition has greatly decreased in the last two elections. It lost the popular vote for the first time to the opposition in 2013.
Experts expect Najib to win a third term. This is because of disagreements within the opposition, changes to voting areas and strong support for the government among rural ethnic Malays.
Critics said the anti-false news bill will add to a list of restrictive laws. This includes a sedition law, a press and publications act, and an official secrets act and a security act. All of these laws have been used to violate freedom of expression and damage media freedom, critics add.
A coalition of human rights and other organizations have expressed concern that the government was pushing the legislation through too quickly. They say the government did not ask for public opinion or release details about the law ahead of time for public examination.
The Associated Press first reported this story. Pete Musto adapted it for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.
We want to hear from you. How does your country's government react to critical voices and opposition? How do you think that reaction should change? Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.
Words in This Story
fake - adj. not true or real
fund - n. an amount of money that is used for a special purpose
data - n. facts or information used usually to calculate, analyze, or plan something
features - n. a special story or section in a newspaper or magazine
visuals - n. something you look at (such as a picture, chart, or film) that is used to make something more appealing or easier to understand
audio - n. of or relating to the sound that is heard on a recording or broadcast
capable - adj. able to do something : having the qualities or abilities that are needed to do something
harmony - n. able to do something : having the qualities or abilities that are needed to do something
assets - n. something that is owned by a person, company, etc. — usually plural
sedition - n. something that is owned by a person, company, etc. — usually plural