Emergency (Essential Powers) (No. 2) Ordinance 2021, which came into effect on March 12, stipulates a fine of RM100 000 (USD24,342), three year’s imprisonment, or both, for the publication and distribution of alleged “fake news” regarding Covid-19 or the Emergency Proclamation. It gives a 24-hour notice to take down posts deemed as “fake news” and allows police to take “necessary measures” to remove posts, such as giving access to computer data such as passwords and encryption codes, subject to a court order.
Media advocacy groups and unions expressed immediate concerns over the ordinance which provides an open scope for prosecution with no clear definition of “fake news”. Of critical note is the fact that the ordinance was drafted by the ruling party using so-called “emergency powers” and not by elected parliamentarians, with Malaysia’s parliament currently suspended due to Covid-19 crisis in the country. The Perikatan Nasional (PN) government, led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, has also re-introduced some specific elements of the Anti-Fake News Act 2018, repealed by the previous Pakatan Nasional government in 2019.
The IFJ, NUJM and other media freedom groups stood united in the opposition to the new ordinance at a time when journalist rights and media freedom have been considerably curtailed under Covid-19.
The NUJM said instead of new laws to tackle fake news and criminalizing journalists, it should be a media council and not government that be charged with that responsibility.
Geramm, a coalition of media practitioners and supporters of press freedom, said laws should “not be used as a tool to silence, pressure or bully parties with an opposing view”. The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) said the law presents “real possibilities of abuse through arbitrary arrests, investigations and punitive actions being taken against the alleged offender”. It anticipated further surveillance, invasions of privacy and censorship of those opposed to the current government.
The NUJM said: “We voice out our grave concern over this issue and do not agree with this law. It seems the current government is trying to silence the voice of every citizen regardless of their race, religion or background. NUJM calls on the government to revive and accelerate the plan to set up a national media council to tackle any issues related to media practitioners, especially journalists who are on the frontline.”
The IFJ said: “This is an abuse of Covid-19 emergency powers by Malaysia’s government to implement laws that will severely curtail the public’s right to know and threaten the ability of journalists to report freely and fairly. It must be condemned at the highest level and questions must be asked what the government’s agenda is beyond this if not to silence and criminalise the media.”
The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 140 countries
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