“Fake News” Is Now Illegal in Malaysia

Whether well-established or nascent, faltering democracies share striking similarities on the path toward dictatorship. One of the most common is an early delegitimization of the media. Undermining press freedoms is generally one of the highest priorities of autocrats trying to seize and centralize power, and in each of the countries profiled in the Center to Restore the Balance of Government’s International Democracy Series [Cambodia, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey, Venezuela], attacks against the press were among the first assaults on democratic institutions. Autocrats fear the power of the fourth estate.

Having just emerged from authoritarian rule, the Framers of the U.S. Constitution intuitively understood the relationship between access to information and the long term viability of a democratic republic. Their solution was to include prohibitions against “abridging freedom of … the press” in the First Amendment. As Benjamin Franklin observed, “Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government: When this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved.”

In what appears to be yet another casualty of the global resurgence of authoritarianism, just this week both houses of Malaysia’s Parliament adopted legislation that calls for prison terms of up to six years for disseminating “fake news” which is loosely defined as news, information, data or reports that are “wholly or partially false.” Images and audio, including foreign content that could affect Malaysia could also fall under the designation of “fake news” so that the law could be invoked against foreign nationals. No demonstration of harm caused by the alleged falsehoods need be shown and decisions would be made at the discretion of the government — a government that increasingly has a lot to hide.

While never a robust democracy, indeed Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, this is just the most recent indication of the country’s slide toward greater autocratic rule. It is widely believed that the nation’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, is cynically using the law to cover up his part in an international scandal. He is currently being investigated for diverting billions of dollars from Malaysia’s state investment fund – 1MDB. The U.S. Justice Department filed civil forfeiture complaints in 2016 seeking to recover more than $1 billion that had been allegedly laundered through American financial institutions from 1MDB and the Department subsequently filed an additional suit last year. If true, the Prime Minister would not be the first to restrict the press in order to obscure corruption.

Last week Malaysia’s Parliament approved plans to redraw the electoral map despite protests that the redistricting plans would virtually ensure a victory by Najib Razak in upcoming elections in what appears to be an additional attempt at consolidating power. His coalition party has led Malaysia since its independence in 1957, and the Election Commission charged with the redistricting will report directly to the Prime Minister’s office.

A free press makes rebellion possible and its disappearance empowers autocrats to become rulers for life. This is a lesson America’s Founders knew well as it was anonymous “reporters” and pamphleteers who courageously exposed the transgressions of the British government spurring colonial Americans to rebel. Currently, the World Press Freedom Index which can be accessed here ranks the United States 43 out of the 180 nations it surveys annually in press freedom making it a good time for all of us to remember that democracy needs to be nurtured and democratic institutions are only as strong as a people’s will to preserve them – this includes the fourth estate. As Thomas Jefferson observed, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

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