Last week, Fahmi Reza was summoned by police in Kuala Lumpur for questioning over two cartoons that he had drawn of the minister of health that were being disseminated over Twitter. One, a fake McDonalds voucher, offered 70% off your quarantine period; the other, a wanted poster, said, “Lost: have you seen this minister?” Officers told Reza that he was being investigated for defaming the minister, under section 223 of the Communications and Multimedia Act, a broadly worded piece of legislation that prohibits any content that is “obscene, indecent, false, menacing or offensive in character.”
Offense is Reza’s stock in trade. A satirical artist, he was last charged under the same act in 2016, over his now famous depiction of the then-prime minister, Najib Razak, as a circus clown. “The same law … has been used numerous times to silence free speech and dissenting voices on social media,” Reza told Rest of World.
On Friday, the Malaysian government used crisis powers to push through an additional “fake news” law that would give it even more scope to crack down on online criticism. The government, headed by Muhyiddin Yassin, declared a state of emergency in January, suspending parliament until August. Opponents decried the move as a coup by stealth, but Muhyiddin said that the measure was necessary to control the Covid-19 pandemic.
The new law imposes up to six years in jail or fines of up to $120,000 for publishing or reproducing challenges to the official narrative “wholly or in part” about the state of emergency, according to Reuters. In effect, the law uses emergency powers to prevent anyone questioning why the government has emergency powers.
“My main concern is that it is not clear how this new ‘fake news’ law will determine what is ‘false’ news or content. I fear it could easily be used to silence criticism or works of political satire and parody that the government does not like,” Reza said. “It shows that this government is desperate and willing to take authoritarian measures in an attempt to retain control and keep themselves in power.”
The new fake news law is similar to — although more limited than — a piece of legislation prepared by the Najib administration in 2018, when the prime minister and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, were deeply entangled in a corruption scandal related to the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund. That bill was widely decried at the time by civil society organizations, who saw it as an attempt by the government to stifle critical speech online. The bill wasn’t passed in time, and Najib suffered a shock election defeat that year, with his UMNO Party losing power.
In 2018, UMNO reclaimed authority by building a fragile alliance under the leadership of Muhyiddin. Muhyiddin’s government has inherited Najib’s sensitivity to criticism, squashing a brief flowering of press freedom under the interim administration.
Since UMNO took back power, authorities have investigated the international news channel Al-Jazeera for defamation and sedition, fined a critical news outlet over readers’ comments, and arrested social media users for insulting ministers and criticizing government policy.
Free speech advocates said that the new fake news law, which was ostensibly passed to control misinformation about Covid-19, is a further attempt to limit criticism and prevent legitimate questions about the government’s emergency powers.
“The government is systematically silencing public and political scrutiny, and this latest ordinance is yet another weapon in its arsenal, enabling it to extend this culture of censorship,” said Nalini Elumalai, program officer for Malaysia with free speech campaign group Article 19. “It appears that the intention behind this emergency ordinance is not countering misinformation but to avoid public scrutiny over the government’s actions and to stifle dissent.”
Malaysian political commentator James Chin, professor of Asian studies at the University of Tasmania, said that he believes the government is less concerned about the mainstream press and more worried by growing dissent online.
“My view is that they’re not after the media, they’re after social media. The people who are much more influential are on Twitter and Facebook,” he said. Chin pointed to a recent viral Facebook post by a man who was fined by police after taking off his mask to eat at a restaurant, which led to social media users questioning lockdown policies. He also pointed to rising discontent online about restrictions on public worship, which threatens the government’s support among conservative Muslims.
“It’s those things that they’re really afraid of,” Chin said. “Those things have a way of getting out of control.”