Anti-Fake News Bill threatens freedom of expression and may lead to the suppression of critical speech — ICJ & Suaram

MARCH 27 — The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) today urged Malaysia’s Parliament not to pass the Anti-Fake News Bill 2018. The two organisations are concerned that the Bill will unduly limit freedom of opinion or expression in Malaysia, and could be used to suppress legitimate criticism of the government.

“The Bill is flawed in its design and will be open to abuse by the Malaysian government which maintains a poor track record in upholding freedom of expression,” said Sevan Doraisamy, Suaram’s Executive Director.

Emerlynne Gil, ICJ’s Senior International Legal Adviser added, “The term ‘fake news’ is in itself problematic. It is defined in an overbroad manner in the draft law, and therefore vulnerable to arbitrary interpretation and enforcement.”  Gil further said, “Given past experience in Malaysia, it is highly likely to be used to suppress legitimate criticism of the government on matters of opinion or where the facts are contested.” 

The right to freedom of opinion and expression is guaranteed by the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

The Bill makes no provision for exceptions or defences such as honest mistake, parody, artistic merit or public interest. The Bill would allow up to ten years imprisonment. “The penalties are wildly disproportionate,” said Gil. “Indeed, under international standards, imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty for such offences.” 

On 3 March 2017, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, together with his counterparts from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Organisation of American States (OAS), and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), issued a joint declaration on ‘fake news’, disinformation and propaganda. The joint declaration emphasised that “the human right to impart information and ideas is not limited to ‘correct’ statements, that the right also protects information and ideas that may shock, offend and disturb.” It also said that “general prohibitions on the dissemination of information based on vague and ambiguous ideas, including ‘false news’ or ‘non-objective information’ are incompatible with international standards for restrictions on freedom of expression.”

The ICJ and Suaram also note that the timing and the lack of transparent consultation on how it was developed raise concerns about the government’s motivation behind the introduction of this Bill. The Bill was introduced during the final days of Parliament sitting and is expected to be voted on within this week, leaving little time for deliberation or consultation. 

Doraisamy said, “Allowing this Bill to be passed would only serve as an affront to democratic values. It will be another strike on Malaysia’s already shoddy human rights record.” 

“Adopting a law that would unduly limit the right to freedom of opinion and expression is not the optimal way to counter disinformation and propaganda. The best way is to disseminate accurate information and to make such information accessible to everyone,” said Gil.

The ICJ and Suaram strongly urge the Malaysian Parliament not to pass the Anti-Fake News Bill 2018 and uphold the right to freedom of opinion and expression in the country.

*This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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