KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AFP) — Malaysia’s government introduced a law Thursday that punishes spreading coronavirus misinformation with jail time and hefty fines, sparking fury at what critics labelled an “appalling” attack on free speech.
The shock move comes amid growing concerns about worsening freedom of expression in Malaysia since a scandal-plagued administration seized power last year.
The emergency ordinance comes into effect Friday, and does not need parliamentary approval as the country is currently under a state of emergency to fight the virus.
For spreading information deemed by authorities “wholly or partly false” related to Covid-19 or the state of emergency, the maximum punishment is three years in prison and a 100,000 ringgit ($24,000) fine.
Those found guilty of funding acts of publishing misinformation face a jail term of up to six years and a 500,000 ringgit fine, according to a copy of the law.
Malaysia’s king declared a state of emergency in January as virus cases surged, but the move was widely criticized as a gambit by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to shore up his collapsing government.
The NGO Centre for Independent Journalism said it was “deeply shocked and appalled” by the new law, and accused the government of using its emergency powers to “stifle any criticism of the current administration”.
The government was seeking “to use any means possible to undermine our fundamental rights and freedoms”, it said in a statement.
The law bears a resemblance to controversial legislation aimed at combating misinformation introduced in 2018 by the graft-mired government of Najib Razak.
Najib lost power in historic elections the same year, and the law was repealed in 2019. But the reformist administration that defeated him fell apart last year, and Muhyiddin seized power.
Since then, there have been concerns that freedom of expression is under attack, with police launching investigations into a growing number of government critics.
There have also been worries in other Asian countries that governments are using the virus as an excuse to crack down on opponents and silence dissent.
© Agence France-Presse