Bangkok, April 30, 2018--In a verdict with grave implications for press freedom, a Malaysian court today handed down the nation's first conviction under its recently enacted "fake news" law, according to press reports.
Salah Salem Saleh Sulaiman, a Danish citizen, was sentenced to one week in prison and fined 10,000 ringgit (US$2,500) for posting to the internet a two-minute video criticizing police's response to the April 21 assassination of a member of the militant group Hamas in Kuala Lumpur.
Sulaiman, who was traveling in Malaysia on vacation when he posted the video, pleaded guilty to the criminal charges of spreading false information, saying that he was unaware of local laws, and apologized to Malaysian authorities, news reports said.
Malaysia's Anti-Fake News Act, enacted earlier this month after passing both houses of Parliament, covers "news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false," reports said. Under the law, an individual convicted of spreading "fake news" can be sentenced to up to six years in prison and be fined 500,000 ringgit (US$128,000).
"Malaysia's first conviction under its 'fake news' law shows authorities plan to abuse the new provision to criminalize critical reporting," said Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative. "The dangerous precedent should be overturned and this ill-conceived law repealed for the sake of press freedom."
Sulaiman was first detained on April 23 and today's sentencing allowed for time already served, according to news reports. If Sulaiman is unable to pay the fine, presiding judge Zaman Mohamad Noor ruled he will have to serve another month in jail, the reports said.
The video Sulaiman posted was about the murder of Hamas member Fadi al-Batsh, an alleged drone warfare expert who trained in Malaysia, according to reports.
The "fake news" law has sparked concerns from journalists and human rights groups that it will be used to suppress media criticism ahead of national elections scheduled for May 9, news reports said.
Local online news outlet Malaysiakini has challenged the law's legality at Kuala Lumpur's High Court on the grounds it violates free speech guarantees enshrined in the national constitution, reports said.