The Singaporean Government has passed a controversial bill targeted at eliminating ‘fake news’ and disinformation, providing broad powers for authorities to police speech online, including in encrypted messaging applications.
- Singapore joins Russia and Vietnam in introducing a fake news law
- The bill carries maximum penalties of a decade in jail and a $1 million fine
- The Government insists Singapore remains a “very open country”
Critics say the legislation, known as the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, is the most far-reaching legislation of its kind in the world and threatens to further restrict freedom of media and speechin the South-East Asian city-state.
The bill, which carries maximum penalties of 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of $SG1 million ($1,050,500), will come into force in the coming weeks.
David Kaye, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression, wrote to the Singaporean Government in late April to raise concerns that the law would “serve as a basis to deter fully legitimate speech, especially public debate, criticism of government policy, and political dissent”.
‘Society safe from wrongdoers’
A commanding majority of members of Singaporean Parliament voted for the bill, which passed 72-9 on May 8.
The opposition Workers’ Party claimed the Government had a “hidden agenda” to clamp down on ordinary citizens.
The law requires platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter — which have their Asian headquarters in Singapore — to remove posts deemed to contain falsehoods by authorities.
Most controversially, the law not only applies to online forums but also private messages sent via encrypted messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and Telegram. It is yet unclear how this aspect of the law would be enforced.
Singapore-based journalist Kirsten Han told the ABC the Government seemed “unwilling to even consider amendments.”
The Government has defended the bill, saying it is necessary and even beneficial for free speech.
Home Affairs Minister Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam claimed criminal sanctions would only apply in the case of deliberate sharing of false information.
“Innocent sharing won’t attract criminal responsibility,” he was quoted as saying by national broadsheet The Straits Times.
“We are a very open country … [but] we must set an appropriate boundary that would allow us to protect free speech and allow people to exchange information, thoughts and opinions in a meaningful way,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told local television in an interview at the end of April.
The Straits Times endorsed the bill in an editorial that argued the law “provide[s] a prohibitive environment to keep society safe from wrongdoers”.
“The law’s punitive force should still apply to those who engage in wilful deceit, using falsehoods to undermine trust in social structures and institution,” it added.
Press freedom and human rights groups have widely condemned the fake news bill.
The South-East Asian Press Alliance said in a statement that there was a likelihood the law would be “arbitrarily applied and abused by those tasked to implement it”.
Singapore was ranked 151st out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2019 World Press Freedom Index, below Russia.
“In its current form, this Orwellian law establishes nothing less than a ‘ministry of truth’ that would be free to silence independent voices and impose the ruling party’s line,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“We condemn this bill in the strongest possible terms because, in both form and substance, it poses unacceptable obstacles to the free flow of journalistically verified information.”
Jeff Paine, the managing director of the Asia Internet Coalition, said in a statement the “legislation gives the Singapore Government full discretion over what is considered true or false”.
“As the most far-reaching legislation of its kind to date, this level of overreach poses significant risks to freedom of expression and speech, and could have severe ramifications both in Singapore and around the world,” he said.
The new bill applies to all content online, meaning that Australian or other foreign journalists who have reported on Singapore could theoretically be charged for distributing ‘fake news’.
But Han said locals were more at risk, arguing the law represents “yet another tool that can be used against critics and activists, and which can perpetuate the culture of self-censorship that already exists in Singapore”.
Neighbouring Malaysia had implemented a similar law under disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak, which was subsequently repealed in August 2018 under his successor, Mahathir Mohamad.