Malaysia passed a new law Monday prohibiting "fake news," a move critics fear will be used to silence dissent ahead of elections, reports the AP. Despite criticism from opposition lawmakers that the legislation will lead Malaysia closer to dictatorship, the bill was approved after heated debate, with 123 lawmakers voting for it, 64 against. Offenders may face a maximum six-year jail term and fine of up to $128,000. Rights activists say the law appears aimed to shut down a multibillion-dollar financial scandal involving Prime Minister Najib Razak, who's expected to call elections in days. They also fear the bill, which extends to foreigners outside Malaysia, may be used against critics of gerrymandering or other aspects of the electoral process. "This will see one step forward to dictatorship, this is more than autocracy," opposition lawmaker Lim Guan Eng said.
Azalina Othman Said, the country's minister of law, said the bill gives power to the court, not the government, to decide what's fake news. "No one is above the law. We are all accountable for our actions," she said. Government officials have accused the opposition of using fake news to win votes and warned that any news on the indebted 1MDB state fund that hasn't been verified by the government is fake. The US and several nations are probing allegations of cross-border embezzlement and money laundering at 1MDB, set up and previously led by Najib to promote economic development, but which accumulated billions in debt. The DOJ says at least $4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB by Najib associates and is trying to seize $1.7 billion, maybe its biggest asset seizure ever. Najib has fired critics and muzzled the media since the scandal erupted in 2015.