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Malaysian government threatens 10-year prison sentences for pushing fake news

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Belt And Road Forum For International Cooperation - Day Two Photo by Thomas Peter - Pool/Getty Images

Malaysia’s government has introduced a sweeping “anti-fake news” bill that critics say could stifle criticism of Prime Minister Najib Razak before a national election later this year. The Wall Street Journal reports that the law would ban “any news, information, data and reports which 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.” It would even cover people outside the country, as long as the information affected Malaysia or Malaysians. Violators would face up to 10 years in prison or fines of over $100,000.

The bill’s critics say it would suppress reporting on a corruption scandal involving Najib and a fund called the 1Malaysia Development Bhd, or 1MDB. And a Malaysian official told the Journal that any 1MDB-related information that wasn’t “verified by Malaysian authorities” would be considered false.

Najib’s party already launched an anti-”fake news” website in January, with Najib saying they had been “victims” of the phenomenon during a previous election in 2013. Malaysia isn’t the only country weighing a “fake news” law either. French president Emmanuel Macron proposed a bill that would make it easier to sue someone for spreading misinformation, and President Rodrigo Duterte signed an amendment expanding existing penalties. President Donald Trump has called to expand the scope of American libel laws and has attempted to shame news organizations with a “fake news award,” although he hasn’t seriously pushed for legal change.

The Asia Internet Coalition — an industry group that includes Google, Facebook, and Twitter — condemned the government’s proposal, saying it would “risk compromising access to information and legitimate exchange of ideas.” Amnesty International condemned it in stronger terms, saying it was “deeply disturbing that the Malaysian authorities are using the catch-all term ‘fake news’ as an excuse to crack down on critics.” However, according to the Journal, the bill is expected to pass in time for August elections.