IF THE bill that the lower house of Malaysia’s parliament passed on April 2nd becomes law, those who publish or spread “any news, information, data and reports which is, or are, wholly or partly false” are liable to six years in prison and a fine of 500,000 ringgit ($130,000). Critics scoff that the government is guilty of many such falsehoods, and will have to start by prosecuting itself. But the government contends that the bill is needed to patch gaps in existing legislation, allowing faster action to stop the spread of calumny through social media as well as in print. It will also punish third parties caught financing the dispersion of dodgy material.
The minister of communications, Salleh Said Keruak, says the bill is “clear and specific” and will not hamper free speech. “I think we can take comfort that we have not veered too far off a track that others may take. We just decided to be ahead of the pack,” says one of his staff.
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In neighbouring Singapore, discussions about curbing “deliberate online falsehoods” are also under way. A parliamentary committee is considering more than 160 written submissions and hours of testimony from academics, activists and journalists. Existing laws cannot cope with the speed and scope of social-media sharing, argues Janil Puthucheary, an MP on the committee. “Our intent is to allow for much more informed discourse,” he says. It helps that Singapore’s constitution allows the government to limit free speech with “such restrictions as it considers necessary or expedient”.
In February the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, banned a local news website, Rappler, from covering his events on the ground that its reports were “fake news”. Ironically, the Philippines is awash with fake news claiming false accolades for Mr Duterte. Rappler, in contrast, is critical of the president.
A furore in India this week shows what can go wrong. The ministry of information issued rules that would have revoked the credentials of journalists found to be peddling falsehoods. Supportive ministers shared links from The True Picture, an online outfit supposedly dedicated to identifying fake news. But the site, it turns out, was actually run by the media team of Narendra Modi, the prime minister. He abruptly ordered the ministry to rescind its new rules, which had been in force for less than a day. Governments, it seems, are no better than anyone else at discerning genuine news from the fake sort or—worse—no more inclined to truthfulness than those whom they so eagerly denounce.