KUALA LUMPUR, March 27 — Journalist groups urged the government today to withdraw or to redraft the Anti-Fake News Bill in consultation with media practitioners to preserve press freedom.

In a joint statement, WAN-IFRA Media Freedom Committee Malaysia (MFC Malaysia) and Institute of Journalists Malaysia alleged that there was no engagement between the government and representatives from the media industry ― as one of the most important stakeholders ― prior to drafting the Bill that was tabled in Parliament yesterday.

“Any legislation on fake news would inevitably affect the media industry, and it is our firm belief that we should be seen as the most important stakeholders as opposed to social media platforms and companies that the government had engaged with.

“The Bill tabled reflects this lack of engagement with media, as it overlooks the impact it could have on the media and does not provide any safeguards for the industry here,” they said in a statement.

They said the proposed legislation would not only restrict media freedom but put livelihoods of journalists and press staff at risk, in what is “already a tumultuous period for the media and news industry worldwide”.

“The press has long been lauded as the fourth estate in a democracy, and the efforts should instead be re-focused on helping the media industry flourish and also improve Malaysia’s standing in the World Press Freedom Index.”

They said there are provisions in the Bill that are “too broad” and could be used as a tool to remove any news articles that the government disagrees with.

“Provisions in this Bill allow the government to apply to have an article removed via the courts, following which the affected party would not be able to set aside the order if national security is cited in removing the article.

“While there exists a process involving the courts in determining the need to remove any article, the bill or provision does not put any substantial burden on the part of the government to establish the veracity of an article before it is brought before the courts.

“Applications for article removals are also ex-parte, which means articles published in any media websites can be removed due to protests and complaints by unsatisfied parties,” they said.

There are also concerns pertaining articles that are published quoting a confidential source, a common practice in journalism.

“We are also concerned with the consequences should an article quoting a confidential source is published by the media and subsequently contested as ‘fake news’.

“Will this compel organisations to compromise their sources, which goes against the grain of investigative journalism?”

The groups said provisions in both the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) and the Printing Presses and Publication Act (PPPA) already allow the government to deal with perpetrators of so-called fake news.

“Any disagreement with media outlets regarding any publication should not involve the use of criminal law, but unfortunately the Fake News Bill serves as an addition to the PPPA, CMA, and also the Sedition Act in restricting the space for media freedom in Malaysia.

“The government has not hesitated in using criminal law provisions against established media organisations in the country ― including The Malaysian Insider, where actions taken under the CMA contributed to the website’s shutdown.

“The Fake News Bill will only serve as another addition to criminal law which could affect journalists in the future,” they said.

The Parliament saw the tabling of the Anti-Fake News Bill 2018 for the first reading yesterday after the Cabinet approved its draft last Wednesday.

If the Bill is passed, those found guilty of committing an offence under its provisions can be charged and slapped with a fine up of to RM500,000, or jailed up to 10 years, or both.