Fake News

Malaysia's First 'Fake News' Conviction Is All About Shielding Government from Criticism

Man goes to jail for complaining about police response times.


Malaysia PM Najib Razak
Faris Hadziq/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Salah Salem Saleh Sulaiman posted an angry YouTube video claiming that it took police in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, 50 minutes to respond to calls over the fatal April shooting of a Palestinian engineer. The police disagree. So now Sulaiman is going to jail.

It's the first conviction under Malaysia's new law criminalizing "fake news," and it's a big warning to anybody who thinks the government should get involved in determining what deserves the "fake news" label.

Whose accounting of the time is correct? I don't know. Police records say the first police car responded within eight minutes. That doesn't necessarily make it true.

Sulaiman, who is actually a Danish citizen of Yemeni descent, threw himself on the mercy of the court and pleaded guilty, insisting that he meant no harm. He did not have any legal representation. He was fined the equivalent of $2,500, which he says he couldn't pay. So he's going to prison for a month.

Malaysia's new law has been attacked by activists concerned that Prime Minister Najib Razak will abuse it to shield himself from criticism for his ongoing financial corruption scandal (he's accused of siphoning off hundreds of millions of dollars from a government investment fund) and to crack down on his opponents. Malaysia has a general election scheduled for May 9.

It is utterly unsurprising that the first fake news conviction is of somebody saying something critical of the government's behavior. When government authorities have control over what sort of criticism is allowed and what information is considered "real" or "fake," they will be tempted to use it to protect their power. Something to keep in mind whenever any official—elected or otherwise—starts popping off about how somebody needs to do "something" about fake news. It's all about shielding themselves from opposition.