Singapore passes new law to police fake news despite concerns

Critics say approved measures grant government sweeping powers and threaten free speech.

A police officer patrols the area surrounding Singapore''s Parliament House on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, in Singapore.
The legislation was debated for two days in parliament [File: Wong Maye-E/AP Photo]

Singapore – After an intense debate, Singapore’s parliament has passed a sweeping “anti-fake news” bill despite concerns raised by journalists, academics and global technology companies over free speech and abuse of power.

Legislators in the island-nation on Wednesday voted to grant government ministers broad powers such as the ability to demand corrections, order the removal of content, or block websites deemed to be propagating falsehoods contrary to the public interest. Penalties for not complying with orders include steep fines and jail time.

Critics say the legislation grants arbitrary powers to government officials to determine what is deemed as fact, arguing that the private sector should be the final arbiter of what constitutes false and irresponsible statements. They say the answer lies in fact-checking websites, vigilance by tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Twitter and increased media literacy to help news consumers better distinguish between the plausible and the improbable.

Opponents also claim that the legislation will give government officials unprecedented powers and will stifle free speech in an era when populist leaders around the world label the media as the enemy of the people. Singapore, whose government regulates its large local media outlets, is ranked 151 out 180 in the World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders.

During the two-day debate in parliament, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam took issue with claims the law will have a “chilling effect” on free speech, and said the new measures will affect “falsehood, bots, trolls and fake accounts”. 

In the buildup to the heated debate, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called a legislative remedy an “essential part” in fighting online hate speech and fake news, adding that it has become “absurdly easy” for people to “conduct covert and subversive campaigns to manipulate opinions and influence elections”.

Penalties, fines

The Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill allows government ministers to hold individuals and online platforms accountable for what they consider malicious falsehoods that harm the public interest. Penalties for not obeying an order include up to 10 years’ jail time and $1 million Singapore dollars ($735,080) in fines.

An individual or a web portal ordered to correct or remove an item could apply to the ministers to challenge an order, and if denied, could turn to a court as the final arbiter. Critics worry the appeal process would be slow, intimidating and costly.

Proponents say these fears are overblown. While the legislation targets factually-incorrect statements, it does not apply, they claim, to opinions, criticisms, satire or parody. Supporters of the bill say the country’s small size makes it especially easy for online rumours to exacerbate existing tensions in the multireligious, multiracial society.

“Legislation complements and does not replace our suite of tools to deal with deliberate online falsehoods,” S Iswaran, Singapore’s minister for communications and information, told a gathering of WAN-IFRA, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.

But government involvement in determining what’s true and what’s false has many saying the measures will set a dangerous precedent.

“In the wrong hands, legislation such as the one under discussion, can be misused for selfish gain. No government or minister – good or bad – should be allowed to wield such broad powers. The bill should be withdrawn pending a genuine and robust discussion on how best to combat ‘fake news’,” a letter signed by journalists warned.

The Asia Internet Coalition, an industry association whose members include Facebook, Google and Twitter, called for more safeguards in the bill: “The overwhelming consensus is that this bill will impact freedom of expression and curtail the rights of individuals, Singaporean or otherwise, to freely express opinions and participate in informed discussions, even debates, that are necessary to ensure executive transparency and accountability.”

Academics signed a letter expressing concerns over unintended consequences for scholars and research in Singapore.

“We are concerned about Singapore’s proposed legislation certainly not because we are oblivious to the seriousness of the global assault on reason. On the contrary, academics are at the frontlines of this battle. But no country’s response should undermine the very capacities it requires to deal with this crisis,” the academics wrote.

Others worry the legislation will allow the People’s Action Party – the country’s sole ruling party since 1959 – to promote self-censorship and intimidate dissenters.

“There is a genuine sense amongst the public that this bill can easily be abused in the wrong hands,” opposition leader Pritam Singh said in parliament, adding that the courts would be a more neutral venue.

The bill empowers government ministers to act to protect national security, public health, public finance, public safety and tranquillity in the friendly relations between Singapore and other countries, and the weakening of public confidence in the government.

That last provision worries Singaporean journalist P N Balji, who wrote: “The proposed law allows any minister, without any oversight and check, to act against those whom they believe are guilty of contravening the law,” calling it “unprecedented in modern Singapore’s legal history”.

Many Singaporeans back the notion of strong legislation as long as it is enforced judiciously.

“Singaporeans are not unfamiliar with tough laws and our particularistic conception of freedom of speech and expression,” said Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at Singapore Management University.

“There is also a sufficient level of awareness of the threats of ‘fake news’ and Singaporeans are fairly sensitised to the need for countermeasures that the bill proposes. My sense is that Singaporeans would rather the authorities be endowed with the ability to engage in decisive and swift action against harmful content hosted on various social media platforms.”

Follow @tgbenner on Twitter

Source: Al Jazeera