(Reuters) — A Malaysian court convicted a Danish citizen on Monday for inaccurate criticism of police on social media, the first person to be prosecuted under a new law against fake news.
Salah Salem Saleh Sulaiman, 46, was charged with spreading false news after he posted a video on YouTube accusing police of taking 50 minutes to respond to distress calls following the shooting of a Palestinian lecturer on April 21.
Police said they took eight minutes to respond to the shooting in the capital, Kuala Lumpur. The charge against Sulaiman said he had “with ill intent, published fake news through a video on YouTube”.
Sulaiman, who was unrepresented at the court hearing, pleaded guilty, but said the video was posted in a “moment of anger” and he did not mean any harm.
“I agreed I made a mistake … I seriously apologize to everybody in Malaysia, not just in the Malaysian police,” said Sulaiman, a Danish citizen of Yemeni descent.
Malaysia is among the first few countries to legislate policing of fake news. Critics say the law is aimed at curbing dissent and free speech ahead of Malaysia’s May 9 general election.
Offenders could be fined up to 500,000 ringgit ($128,000) and face a maximum of six years in jail.
The judge fined Sulaiman 10,000 ringgit ($2,552) but he opted to spend a month in jail because he could not pay.
Palestinian lecturer Faid al-Batsh was shot dead by two men on April 21. Police have yet to identify the suspects, but believe they are still in the country.
Malaysia’s inspector-general of police, Mohamad Fuzi Harun, said a day after the shooting that their records showed a distress call was received at 6:41 a.m. and a patrol car arrived at the scene eight minutes later.
The Anti-Fake News Act defines fake news as “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false” and included features, visuals and audio recordings.
The law covers digital publications and social media and also applies to offenders outside Malaysia, including foreigners, if Malaysia or a Malaysian citizen are affected.
A Malaysian media company filed a suit seeking to declare the law unconstitutional.
Governments elsewhere in Southeast Asia, including Singapore and the Philippines, have also proposed laws aimed at clamping down on the spread of “fake news”, to the dismay of media rights advocates.
(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Writing by Joseph Sipalan; Editing by Praveen Menon and Darren Schuettler)