Malaysia Gets Very Serious About Anti-Vaccine Misinformation

In the United States, the First Amendment to the US Constitution protects groups and individuals from government action against them for most speech. Like any other constitutional right, there are reasonable limits applied to Free Speech, like the ubiquitous example of “you can’t yell ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater.” That is, speech that clearly puts others in danger has not been recognized as protected speech by modern legal scholars, legislators and members of the judiciary. Anti-vaccine misinformation, however, continues to be one of those issues on which the brightest legal minds seem to disagree.

Some are of the opinion that a person saying that vaccines are not safe and effective, or that they’re part of some global conspiracy, or that they will cause infertility, is all protected speech because those views are simply opinions. But what if those opinions are promulgated by well-known celebrities or by lesser-known authorities on health and medicine? For example, if a physician from Great Britain comes to the United States and tells a group of parents that the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine is dangerous and will cause autism, and that community then experiences a rather large measles outbreak that injures children, is that physician guilty of something? Can they be held liable under civil or criminal charges?

Authorities in Malaysia, a country in Southeast Asia with a population of about 32 million people are making it very clear what is protected speech and what is not when it comes to anti-vaccine misinformation. From Reuters:

Malaysia on Thursday (March 11) brought in a law to tackle fake news related to Covid-19 and the state of emergency imposed nationwide since January, with the threat of hefty fines and jail terms of up to six years.

The ordinance, which takes effect on Friday, will make it an offence to publish or reproduce any “wholly or partly false” content related to the pandemic or the emergency declaration, which was seen by critics as a move to shore up Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s position.

The emergency law does not need parliamentary approval.

The jurisdiction of the ordinance will extend to any individual who commits an offence regarding Malaysia’s handling of the pandemic outside of Malaysia, regardless of nationality or citizenship, according to the order published in the government’s federal gazette.

Those found guilty face a fine of up to RM100,000 (S$32,600), up to three years in jail, or both.

The ordinance prescribes a heavier penalty for individuals found guilty of funding acts of publishing fake news, with a fine of up to RM500,000, a maximum of six years imprisonment, or both.

Malaysia imposes emergency law to clamp down on Covid-19 fake news” Reuters, March 11, 2021

A few days ago, the Law Minister of that country weighed in on how someone could or would be prosecuted for what is, in essence, a form of speech. From the Malay Mail:

When asked if the government would draft new laws against anti-vaccine groups, especially those spreading fake news related to vaccines, Takiyuddin said that was not necessary as the country had certain existing laws.

“We already have existing laws like the Sedition Act for cases categorised as seditious offences, we can take action under this act.

“Besides that, the Multimedia Act also has a category of offences under which we can take action. Currently with the Emergency being enforced, the Communications and Multimedia Ministry has also created an emergency ordinance related to anti-fake news and the government can take action under this law,” he said.

“Law minister says anti-vaxxers may face Sedition and Multimedia Acts; but govt undecided on penalty for Covid-19 jab no-shows” The Malay Mail, May 30, 2021

We are at a time when social media has allowed many people to have a bullhorn and proclaim their opinions (or alternate facts) loudly and proudly to audiences in the millions. As a species, we have not matured into this technology, so we find ourselves wondering how to deal with it. In time, like with everything else, the law may catch up to all of this. However, whether that catching up will be equitable, ethical, or even moral, will be up for debate.

But, at this time, it’s okay to say that a vaccine will insert a tracking chip into you here in the United States, but not so in Malaysia.

Author: René F. Najera, DrPH

I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, an online project by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. All opinions expressed on these blog posts are not necessarily those of the College or any of my employers. Check out my professional profile on LinkedIn: Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen