Singapore’s fake news bill at heart of concerns over curbing free speech

Singapore Parliament‘s anti-fake news legislation passed yesterday is at the heart of a growing storm involving internet firms, human rights groups and media platforms who claim it may be too much power for the government and curb freedom of speech.

Under the ‘Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill’, tabled in the legislative house yesterday, the Bill ‘requires the online platforms to keep their platforms safe and secure through the introduction of binding Codes of Practice’. In addition, the proposed legislation also contains provisions for disabling inauthentic online accounts or bots that are spreading falsehoods that are deemed by the government to be ‘against the public interest’.

The new bill proposes that the government get online platforms to publish warnings or “corrections” alongside posts carrying false information, without removing them.
The new bill proposes that the government get online platforms to publish warnings or “corrections” alongside posts carrying false information, without removing them. Photo: Connected to India

The move came two days after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had said governments should play a more active role in regulating the online platform.

But Simon Milner, who works on Facebook’s public policy in Asia, said after the law was tabled, the firm was “concerned with aspects of the law that grant broad powers to the Singapore executive branch to compel us to remove content they deem to be false and proactively push a government notification to users”.

“Singapore’s ministers should not have the power to singlehandedly decree what is true and what is false,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director, HRW. “Given Singapore’s long history of prohibiting speech critical of the government, its policies or its officials, its professed concerns about ‘online falsehoods’ and alleged election manipulation are farcical.”

“This draft law will be a disaster for human rights, particularly freedom of expression and media freedom,” he added.

Defending the proposed law, Singapore’s Law Minister K Shanmugam said the new legislation would not hinder free speech.

“This legislation deals with false statements of facts. It doesn’t deal with opinions, it doesn’t deal with viewpoints. You can have whatever viewpoints however reasonable or unreasonable,” he said.

The new bill proposes that the government get online platforms to publish warnings or “corrections” alongside posts carrying false information, without removing them.

This would be the “primary response” to counter falsehoods online, the Law Ministry said.

“That way, in a sense, people can read whatever they want and make up their minds. That is our preference,” Shanmugam added.

Under the proposals, which must be approved by parliament, criminal sanctions including hefty fines and jail terms will be imposed if the falsehoods are spread by “malicious actors” who “undermine society”, the ministry said, without elaborating.

It added that it would cut off an online site’s “ability to profit”, without shutting it down, if the site had published three falsehoods that were “against the public interest” over the previous six months.

Defending the proposed law, Singapore’s Law Minister K Shanmugam said the new legislation would not hinder free speech.
Defending the proposed law, Singapore’s Law Minister K Shanmugam (centre) said the new legislation would not hinder free speech. Photo courtesy: Twitter/@kshanmugam

Singapore’s legislation shares many points in common with the Anti-Fake News 2018 Bill introduced in neighbouring Malaysia last year, which drew heavy criticism from Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“The ‘fake news’ bill is a blatant attempt by the government to prevent any and all news that it doesn’t like, whether about corruption or elections,” said Brad Adams, director, Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. “The proposed law uses draconian penalties and broad language in an audacious and unprecedented effort to control discussion of Malaysia worldwide.”

Author
Tushaar Kuthiala
Tushaar Kuthiala – Associate Editor

Tushaar has extensive experience as a journalist and in founding two start-up newspapers. He has developed editorial models for both copy and content, and has written several articles, news reports on a wide range of topics. He is a graduate of St. Stephen’s College and earned a post-graduate diploma in TV Journalism from the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ), Chennai. He has worked as a special correspondent based in New Delhi with Daily World, an international media organisation. 

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