Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Rights group warns of ‘climate of fear’ over fake news ordinance

Lawyers for Liberty says a state of emergency 'is not a licence to arbitrarily legislate laws'.

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Rights group Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) has expressed concern over a new emergency ordinance allowing fines of up to RM100,000 for those found to be spreading fake news on Covid-19 and the state of emergency, saying it is open to abuse by the authorities and will lead to a “climate of fear”.

In a statement, LFL coordinator Zaid Malek said the Emergency (Essential Powers) (No 2) Ordinance 2021 “entirely disregards the right to privacy” by allowing enforcement officers to search any electronic device that they deem necessary to complete their investigation.

“When compounded by the fact that not cooperating with such a search will open the risk of a person being fined up to RM100,000 and/or imprisonment, it takes no imagination to see how this provision can easily be abused by the authorities.

“It will create a climate of fear,” he said.

He also voiced concern over the wording of the ordinance which he said does not define the term “emergency proclamation”.

He said such vagueness would likely lead to inconsistent application of the order while likewise increasing the probability of its abuse at the hands of enforcement authorities or “other interested parties”.

The ordinance, gazetted yesterday, allows for fines of up to RM100,000, jail time of up to three years or both for those found creating, publishing or spreading fake news on Covid-19 or the proclamation of emergency.

According to the gazette, “fake news” includes any news, information, data and reports, which is or are wholly or partly false relating to Covid-19 or the emergency, whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words.

It also states that the police or authorised officer may arrest any person whom he reasonably believes has committed or is attempting to commit an offence under this ordinance.

Zaid said this was not the first time an attempt had been made to legislate an anti-fake news law in the country.

He said the ordinance also attempts to disregard due process by allowing derogations from the application of the Evidence Act 1950.

“Considering the enormity of the fines and imprisonment stipulated, these derogations are unjustified and clearly contradict the sacrosanct principles of a fair and impartial trial and may lead to unjust convictions.”

Urging the government to repeal the ordinance, he said a state of emergency “is not a licence to arbitrarily legislate laws”.

“They are at all times bound by the provision of the Federal Constitution and must specifically be cognisant of Article 150 (2B) that limits the enactment of any ordinance to only when there exist circumstances that necessitates its immediate creation.

“With the breadth of laws that already exist such as the Penal Code, the Communications and Multimedia Act and others that sufficiently criminalises offending speech, there is no logical or legitimate reason for the enactment of this ordinance.”

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