Malaysia has repealed the controversial anti-fake news law, which has been widely condemned for stifling free speech since its introduction by the previous government ahead of its unsuccessful May general election campaign.
It marks a rare piece of good news for Asean’s heavily restricted media as press freedom is eroded across the region.
The law, passed under former prime minister Najib Razak, made it an offence to create, publish or disseminate any “fake” news or any publication containing anything deemed by the authorities to be fake. Those found guilty face up to six years in jail and fines of US$130,000.
It was widely condemned as an assault on free speech to stop discussions of scandals such as 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). Najib now faces up to 125 years in jail if found guilty of corruption charges.
The political transition had an impact on the economy last quarter, with public sector investment contracting 9.8 per cent from a year ago, reducing overall government expenditure by 1.4 per cent.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, 93, who was one of the first people investigated under the fake news law, promised during his successful election campaign to repeal it.
He had claimed Najib’s associates were responsible for “sabotaging” his aeroplane, almost preventing him from registering as an election candidate.
To replace the law, a minister in the prime minister’s department Mohamed Hanipa Maidin said the police would instead be given new powers to deal with the “phenomenon” of fake news.
Teddy Brawner Baguilat of Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights welcomed the move, saying: “This is a law that was clearly designed to silence criticism of the authorities and to quell public debate – it should never have been allowed to pass in the first place.”
The Philippines, Singapore and Cambodia have also said they were going to table legislation tackling “fake news”. Baguilat said the Malaysian decision “sends a signal to the wider region that positive human rights change is within reach”.
Elsewhere in Asean, media freedom is under threat. Cambodia’s successful efforts to remove any publisher or broadcaster that is not a government cheerleader has been well documented.
The press in the Philippines remains vibrant but so does the death toll among media staff in the archipelago.
In Thailand, the press still operates with surprising freedom considering that a dictatorial junta seized power more than four years ago.
Fresh restrictions were recently placed on Thai journalists. They are now only allowed to submit questions for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha press conferences in advance and were informed that no photos were to be taken of the general when he was eating, close up and using staircases. It was not explained how this would undermine national security.
Thailand’s second-largest English-language paper, The Nation, is under new ownership and early signs are not promising.
Within weeks of taking over, all full stops in The Nation’s online news stories suddenly turned into a variety of McDonald’s burgers (see screenshot) in one of the most ill-advised corporate sponsorship deals in living memory.
If a mouse loitered over a burger, a mouth appeared around it and the reader was taken directly to the burger giant’s website.
It marked something of a new low for print media and it is hard to see how the Thai junta will be held to account by proprietors prepared to sell full stops for burgers.
The Nation in Thailand sells full stops for burgers in a deeply tragic story.
Back in Malaysia, strict sedition legislation and laws restricting press freedom are still available to the government. But in a possible sign of change, all charges were recently dropped against the Malaysian cartoonist Zunar, who faced nine sedition charges for his satirical cartoons of Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor. His books are now on sale for the first time in almost 10 years.
The news comes as Malaysia’s gross domestic product grew at its slowest pace in more than a year in the second quarter and the currency is facing pressure.
“Given recent market developments, escalating trade tensions and tighter fiscal finances, risks are skewed to the downside,” Julia Goh of the United Overseas Bank in Kuala Lumpur told Bloomberg. “We expect growth to average 4.7 per cent in the second half of 2018, bringing full-year growth to 4.8 per cent.”
Part of Mahathir’s attempts to balance his budget revolve around recovering assets squandered on the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund.
The key Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho wanted for his role in the multibillion-dollar scandal says he will not to get a fair hearing and will not present himself where his guilt has been predetermined.
Low is named by the US Department of Justice as being in part responsible for the disappearance of over US$4.5 billion from the fund, buying a private jet, the Equanimity superyacht, Picassos, jewellery and real estate.
The Malaysian authorities have issued an arrest warrant for Low, who denies any wrongdoing.
A spokesman for Low said he “believes there is no jurisdiction where he can get a fair hearing in this matter”.
“Low will not submit to any jurisdiction where guilt has been predetermined by politics and self-interest overrules legal process,” Low’s representatives said.
Although the Malaysian authorities may struggle to get their hands on Low, at least journalists can now report on the case without facing six years in jail.
Malaysia’s press still faces heavy restrictions. Picture credit: Wikimedia