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Malaysia: WhatsApp chat groups could be in hot water over fake news – deputy minister

**This article has been updated.

MALAYSIAN officials reportedly said people using messaging platforms such as Whatsapp, WeChat, Viber and Telegram could be held liable to legal actions if they participate in the spread of false information, or make comments of an obscene or incestuous nature.

On Thursday, local daily Berita Harian reported Deputy Communications and Multimedia Minister Johari Gilani saying WhatsApp admins were liable to be charged under the Section 233 Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) 1998, specifically the provision which prevents the spread of information that could “jeopardize national security”.

However, a statement released today by the Multimedia Malaysia Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) corrected Johari’s assertions, and noted authorities would make no distinction between a chat group’s admins and its members.

“MCMC would like to clarify to the public conversations in any messaging apps including WhatsApp, WeChat, Viber, Telegram, and the like are personal in nature. Investigations would only be carried out if complaints are made regarding the content shared within a group.

“Therefore, everyone, regardless of whether they are an administrator or a member, must be vigilant in ensuring information spread within a group will not incur an investigation,” the statement read.

The CMA Act 1998 stipulates those charged may be punished for a series of offences, including defamation, incitement, fraud, communications of a deviant nature, the disclosure of communications classified under the Official Secrets Act (OSA) and the spreading of false news. The use of chat groups to spread such communications is also prohibited.

Malaysian Consumers Association deputy president Mohd Yusof Abdul Rahman was reported to have said action against admins may also fall under the purview of other laws such as the Sedition Act 1948, Defamation Act 1957, the Computer Crimes Act 1957, as well as the Penal Code.

“The administrator may be called to assist with investigations,” deputy minister Johari said. “Whether action is taken depends on the facts and evidence of each case.”

“It doesn’t matter if the information was false, inauthentic or slanderous. If the admin was directly involved or allowed false information to spread intentionally, he will be punished.”

Johari further said admins need to be a “gatekeeper to filter news before sharing” information on WhatsApp. It’s unclear how feasible this course of action is, as regulation of what is otherwise a private chat space will be – if not a nearly insurmountable task, then a needlessly difficult one.

MCMC also clarified in their statement that they would have to rely on complaints from the public before they will be able to investigate such incidents.

“Investigations may only be conducted if we receive complaints towards the content that has been spread in a group,” their statement read. Previously, it was unclear as to how the ministry would look to regulate the spread of false news in chat groups, and it appears as if this problem will persist. Short of jumping into a rabbit hole of controversial privacy issues, regulators would have no way of throwing a wide enough net to cease the flow of unverified news.

This latest move comes on the heels of the launch of It is a government initiative that provides the public with tools to work with government entities to combat fake news by sharing unconfirmed news items circulating on social media, messaging services and websites. After the news has been shared, authorities will verify the information and take swift action in response.

Malaysia seems to be taking a leaf from India’s book, as noted by Mohd Yusof, who said the sanctions on WhatsApp admins should be implemented with immediate effect.

“In India, the government is introducing a new law, where WhatsApp administrators could be jailed if members of the group are spreading false news,” he told Berita Harian.

“Even though those within the group are the ones spreading the false information, the administrator will be held responsible because he has failed to filter and erase those pieces of false information before they were spread.”

He echoed Johari’s words that fake news is not only a nuisance, but also a threat to national security.

However, Mohd Yusof was much more circumspect, noting admins should not be made liable to incur heavy punishments, and that a warning would be sufficient for first-time offenders.