NEW YORK (May 8, 2018) — Last week, the Malaysian government announced that they are investigating Mahathir Mohamad, candidate for prime minister in the upcoming general election on May 9, for violating the country’s newly-minted Anti-Fake News Law. HRF condemns the investigation as an attempt to distract voters from a corruption scandal and undermine the electoral process ahead of the election. If Mahathir’s coalition wins the most seats in that vote, he would become Malaysia’s new prime minister.
“Prime Minister Najib is manipulating the anti-fake news law to maintain his grip on power. He will do anything to remain in office, and his chief strategy is to eliminate electoral competition,” said HRF President Thor Halvorssen. “Mahathir is hardly a fearless defender of democracy, but the fake news investigation is completely groundless. This anti-fake news law was already a grave threat to free expression, and now it is being openly abused to impede free and fair elections,” Halvorssen concluded.
The Malaysian government initiated the investigation after Mahathir wrote an open letter claiming that government agents attempted to prevent him from filing his candidacy for prime minister. The new anti-fake news law, which was passed by parliament in April, defines “fake news” to be any type of expression that is “wholly or partially false, whether in the form of features, visuals, or audio recording, or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas.” Anyone who commits an offense can be fined up to $127,000, or be imprisoned for up to ten years, or both.
“The new law’s definition of ‘fake news’ is extremely ambiguous and overreaching, allowing for abuse and manipulation by Malaysia’s competitive authoritarian regime,” explained Joy Park, legal counsel for Asia at HRF. “With such overbroad and vague language, the law could essentially criminalize the expression of personal opinions, especially those critical of the regime. Mahathir Mohamad is facing investigation just for claiming that his plane to Langkawi may have been sabotaged. The anti-fake news law must be repealed to protect Malaysians’ fundamental right to free expression as protected in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Malaysia is obliged to follow as a member state of the United Nations.”
Malaysia’s general election will take place on May 9. The leading candidates for prime minister are incumbent Najib Razak and Mahathir Mohamad. Najib’s coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), has ruled over Malaysia since its independence in 1957. Mahathir was once Najib’s political ally and a member of his party but cut ties after a scandal emerged incriminating Najib for the theft of hundreds of millions of dollars from 1MDB, a state-owned investment fund. Mahathir went on to form an unexpected political alliance with jailed opposition leader and former Oslo Freedom Forum speaker Anwar Ibrahim.
The investigation of Najib under the anti-fake news law was the most recent effort to prevent his political opponents from competing on a level playing field. Last month, Malaysia’s government ordered the temporary dissolution of Mahathir’s political party. The very next day, Najib dissolved parliament to trigger snap elections, believing that a short campaign period would improve his chances at winning a third term. Electoral reform groups have found major irregularities in the voter list for the election, and electoral boundaries have been drawn to favor BN in the election. Najib is expected to win this Wednesday with a parliamentary majority.
Clare Rewcastle Brown, investigative journalist and founder of Sarawak Report and Radio Free Sarawak, will be speaking about political and financial corruption in Malaysia, including the 1MDB scandal, at the Oslo Freedom Forum on May 28-30.
The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies.