Concerns over Malaysian PM Mahathir's backtrack on anti-fake news laws

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s new prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, has drawn flak from journalist groups – as well as contradictory statements from within his own coalition – after saying he would only review and not revoke an anti-fake news law. 

Prior to the May 9 general election, Mahathir said the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition would repeal the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 and other “oppressive” laws in the event of a PH win at the polls.  

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Since PH’s shock victory, however, Mahathir has seemingly changed his stance about the act he is being investigated under himself.

“Even though we support freedom of press and freedom of speech, there are limits,” he said in a live telecast on public broadcaster RTM on Sunday.

“The fake news law will be given a new definition so that the public and media outlets will know what is fake news and what is not fake.”

At the time of the anti-fake news law’s tabling in March, lawmakers from Mahathir’s coalition as well as journalist groups had critiqued then ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) for hastily pushing the bill within weeks of polls being called.

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Now, the Centre for Independent Journalism is calling on the Pakatan Harapan government “to comply with their manifesto pledges and take immediate steps to repeal the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 (AFNA) that was passed by the previous government”.

“AFNA is a blatant attempt to stifle dissent and create a chilling effect among the public,” it said in a statement, highlighting “draconian” penalties of jail terms up to six years and fines of up to RM500,000 (US$127,000).

“This is not the time to prop up the relics of the previous administration that were used to silence its critics and to create a climate of fear.”

The Institute of Journalists similarly said it “hopes for better protection of journalists and freedom of expression in the country”.

“While we welcome Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s recent assurances that the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 will be ‘redefined’, we hope that this exercise will go beyond mere cosmetic changes to the law and involve robust consultations with the media and other stakeholders,” it said.

However, Mahathir’s newly appointed finance minister from the Democratic Action Party, Lim Guan Eng, told reporters on Monday that the government’s position had not changed.

“Mahathir did not say he is not going to abolish it, which is the same point I am making,” he was quoted as saying by news portal Malaysiakini.

“The PH position has always been to abolish the Anti-Fake News Act. I will clarify with him (Mahathir) when I see him tomorrow, but I believe his position is still the same”.

Nurul Izzah Anwar, vice-president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, another PH component party, on Tuesday gave Lim “kudos” for supporting the Anti-Fake News Act’s repeal.

“The anti-fake news law, which is thoroughly draconian in nature, should be repealed,” she tweeted.

“Our promise to the people was to abolish draconian laws”.

A COALITION ALREADY DIVIDED?

The contradictory statements on the anti-fake news act come after a senior leader of the PKR – led by Mahathir’s former rival Anwar Ibrahim – publicly stated the party was not happy with how Mahathir had determined cabinet posts so far.

On Saturday, PKR vice-president Rafizi Ramli said Mahathir’s announcement of three minister positions had been done without PKR’s final consensus. 

Mahathir met his former deputy, Anwar, that night, who issued a statement on Sunday reiterating his party’s support for the 92-year-old.

However, he called on talks for cabinet positions to be more inclusive.

 

Now, there is speculation of more discontent as the Prime Minister’s Office has delayed the Pardons Board meeting to discuss Anwar’s release. He is now expected to be freed on Wednesday. 

Anwar has been serving out a prison sentence since 2015 on a sodomy conviction he alleged was politically motivated, handed down during former prime minister Najib Razak’s time in office. 

In the 1990s, however, Anwar had accused Mahathir of being behind charges that sent him behind bars the first time.

The two had put aside their differences to form an alliance capable of ousting another one of Mahathir’s former protege, Najib.

Amid the perceived tensions, supporters of Najib’s party BN, have become unlikely advocates.

“It’s only the first working day for the new government, enough with the punditry,” tweeted BN Youth executive secretary Zaidel Baharuddin.

“I am literally in the opposition and even I am giving it some time before commenting on anything.”

Fellow BN Youth Exco member and defeated member of parliament candidate Shahril Hamdan echoed this.

“Give the new government some time to set up and find (its footing),” he tweeted.

“In any case, we have a lot of our own internal problems to solve.

“Everyone in Umno/BN needs to make peace with this new reality. Only then can stage credible fightback.”


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