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Malaysia cuts proposed penalty for fake news to six years

The anti-fake news bill is being debated by legislators and is expected to be approved next week.

Malaysia’s government has cut the proposed punishment in a bill prohibiting fake news from 10 to six years in prison.

The move comes after an outcry from rights groups and opposition legislators who say it aims to silence dissent ahead of a general election.

The anti-fake news bill, presented in parliament on Monday, is being debated by legislators and is expected to be approved next week.

In addition to imprisonment, it also calls for a fine of up to 500,000 ringgit (£92,000).

Azalina Othman, minister in charge of law, said the government decided to reduce the prison term after considering views from several parties.

She told parliament that the government will also amend a clause to make it a crime to “maliciously” create fake news, instead of “knowingly” in the original draft.

Rights activists say the bill, which covers all media and extends even to foreigners outside Malaysia, appears aimed at shutting down discussions of a multibillion-dollar financial scandal involving Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak denies any wrongdoing (Sadiq Asyraf/AP)

They also fear the bill could be used against critics of gerrymandering or other aspects of the electoral process.

On Wednesday, parliament approved controversial new constituency boundaries for national elections due in August, but widely expected in the next few weeks.

“Malaysia’s fake news bill is a blatant attempt by the government to prevent any and all news that it doesn’t like, whether about corruption or elections,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

“The proposed law uses draconian penalties and broad language in an audacious and unprecedented effort to control discussion of Malaysia worldwide.”

Ms Azalina denied the bill will curb free speech and said it will stop fake news from going viral, which could hurt national security and interracial harmony.

“Fake news is bad news… stories that have been fabricated or changed and spread without a conscious consideration of the impact it could have on the people,” she said, adding that the legislation will make people more responsible in publishing and sharing news.

Government officials have accused the opposition coalition of using fake news to win votes and warned that any news about the indebted 1MDB state fund that has not been verified by the government is fake.

Commuters use their mobile phones next to an advertisement discouraging the dissemination of fake news at a train station in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Vincent Thian/AP)

The US and several other countries are investigating allegations of cross-border embezzlement and money laundering at 1MDB, which was set up and previously led by Mr Najib to promote economic development, but which accumulated billions in debt.

The US Justice Department says at least 4.5 billion US dollars (£3.2 billion) was stolen from 1MDB by associates of Mr Najib, and it is working to seize 1.7 billion dollars (£1,2 billion) taken from the fund to buy assets in the US, potentially its largest asset seizure ever.

Mr Najib, who denies any wrongdoing, has fired critics in his government and muzzled the media since the corruption scandal erupted three years ago.

Support for Mr Najib’s ruling coalition has dwindled in the last two elections.

In 2013, it lost the popular vote for the first time to the opposition.

Yet analysts say Mr Najib is expected to win a third term due to infighting in the opposition, the unfavourable electoral boundary changes and strong support for the government among rural ethnic Malays.

Other Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore and the Philippines, have also proposed laws to clamp down on fake news.

Press Association

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