[Singapore] Anti-’fake news’ bill ‘frighteningly broad’, ‘dangerous’ as gov’t sets itself up as arbiter of truth and falsehood

Singapore is inching closer to passing a law fighting “fake news” as the “Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill” was tabled in Parliament on Monday, 1 April 2019.

This development came after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced on 29 March 2019 that the bill would  be introduced for first reading in Parliament.

“The Law Ministry, in tabling the Bill, said it is intended to protect society from the damage caused by deliberate online falsehoods and fake accounts used to spread such falsehoods,” reported Channel News Asia.

But human rights advocates view the draft legislation as a further threat to press freedom and freedom of expression in the city-state.

Kirsten Han, a Singapore journalist and activist, said the proposed legislation is “frighteningly broad” and will give government ministers “so much power.” (https://twitter.com/kixes/status/1112692697662291968)

“Any Minister can order content to be corrected/removed/access blocked, if they think it’s in the public interest to do so. Definition of ‘public interest’ includes ‘friendly relations’ with other countries, preventing ‘diminution of public confidence’ in the government,” Han said. (https://twitter.com/kixes/status/1112697381147926528)

“This bill clearly demonstrates that the government is setting itself up as the arbiter of truth and falsehood – a manifestly dangerous proposition, especially for a society that is already reeling from a raft of repressive laws,” said Tess Bacalla, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).

“You’re basically giving the autocrats another weapon to restrict speech, and speech is pretty restricted in the region already,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. (Singapore Plans Law to Fight False News, but Critics Fear Repression, 1 April 2019)

In March 2018, the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods conducted public consultations and in September 2018, they submitted to the Parliament their report containing recommendations to tackle fake news.

According to news reports, the bill seeks to address “deliberate online falsehoods” through content corrections, social media account restrictions, and code of practice for platforms.

For severe cases of “deliberate online falsehoods”, penalties of up to 10 years in jail and fines of up to SGD 1M will be imposed.

So far in Southeast Asia, Malaysia is the only nation with an anti-fake news legislation which the country tried but failed to repeal amidst mounting criticism. Other countries use cyber security laws to address the spread of “fake news.”

In 2017, the Philippines also mulled passing a law that would penalize the spread of fake news by imposing fines of up to P5M and imprisonment of up to five years. The bill filed in the Senate also sought to double the penalties if a public official commits the offense.

Read the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill here:

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