ucanews.com reporter, Kuala LumpurUpdated: April 03, 2018 10:13 AM GMT
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak speaks to journalists in this file image taken Sept. 9, 2017. (Photo by Mohd Rasfan/AFP)
The Malaysian government — headed by scandal-plagued Prime Minister Najib Razak — has approved a law that gags criticism of his government, especially on social media.
The sweeping Anti-Fake News Bill 2018 sailed through parliament on April 2 with 123 lawmakers, including 11 sitting in the opposition benches, voting for it while 64 voted against.
The government, reeling from a series of scandals, has accused opposition politicians of spreading allegations of spectacular corruption to win votes and warned that any news that has not been vetted by the government is fake.
Lawmakers from the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, better known as PAS, which has fallen out with the opposition alliance Pakatan Harapan, voted with Barisan Nasional, the government coalition, to pass the bill after a few amendments.
The maximum jail term under the bill is reduced to six years from 10. The proposed fine of up to 500,000 ringgit (US$128,000) is maintained. The term "knowingly" publishing fake news was changed to "maliciously" to define an offence.
Critics describe the scope of the bill as being too broad and a threat to freedom of expression in Malaysia. They also fear it will be abused to silence dissent ahead of a general election due by August this year but expected to be called sooner.
The government has denied claims it would be used to silence critics, insisting that it has been drafted with the aim of safeguarding national interests as well as to protect "victims of fake news."
The new law comes on the heels of the scandal surrounding the Malaysia state fund 1MDB and the disappearance of billions of dollars, some of which allegedly wound up in Najib's bank account.
In December last year, U.S. attorney-general Jeff Sessions described the corruption scandal as the worst form of kleptocracy, and said the Department of Justice was working to provide justice to the victims.
The DoJ in June last year filed several lawsuits to seize more than US$1.7 billion in assets believed to have been stolen from the sovereign fund set up by Najib.
Sessions said "allegedly corrupt officials" in 1MDB had reportedly spent US$200 million on real estate in Southern California and New York, US$130 million on artwork, invested US$100 million in an American music label and US$265 million on a yacht.
"In total, 1MDB officials allegedly laundered more than US$4.5 billion in funds through a complex web of opaque transactions and fraudulent shell companies with bank accounts in countries ranging from Switzerland and Singapore to Luxembourg and the United States," Sessions said.
The U.S. lawsuits allege that US$681 million of the misappropriated funds from 1MDB was transferred to the account of "Malaysian Official 1," which U.S. and Malaysian sources have previously identified as Najib.
The minister in charge of legal affairs, Azalina Othman, said that with the passage of the law, now only the courts can decide the identity of "Malaysian Official 1" (MO1).
Azalina said this in response to a question from an opposition lawmaker who asked if the acknowledgement by a minister in 2016 that "MO1" was Najib was now considered "fake news".
She declined to elaborate further on the 1MDB issue and multi-billion-ringgit deposits into Najib's personal bank accounts, citing a ruling by Parliament Speaker Pandikar Amin.
Pandikar has forbidden discussions on the matter in parliament, citing sub judice due to ongoing court cases.
Najib has claimed the US$681 million deposit into his personal bank account was a donation from a member of the Saudi royal family.
The DOJ has claimed that the exact amount originated from 1MDB and had made its way into the personal bank accounts of a "MO1".
Najib has denied any wrongdoing and was cleared of any offence by Malaysia's attorney-general.
The new bill now goes to the senate, which is in session until April 15, before being gazetted as law.