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Can Singapore’s New Law Against Fake News Affect Free Speech?

Activists say the law grants the government sweeping powers and could lead to censorship.

by Shamani Joshi
10 May 2019, 1:35pm

Photo via Shutterstock

Fake news is that one engrossing but destructive friend who sends you WhatsApp forwards saying India’s BJP party supports marijuana legalisation or posts on social media about a woman suing Samsung for millions because her phone got stuck in her vagina. But friend or faux , fake news often spreads fast. And if the solution to keep it in check is to constantly monitor the kind of content coming out, it's kinda asking for too much.

So, on the face of it, Singapore just passing the controversial and much debated Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, banning fake news and promising action against all those who propagate it, sounds like a need of the hour. But critics are already pointing out that this may very well be the end of innovation as we know it.

The law that seeks to control the spread of misinformation in the country criminalises false statements that threaten Singapore's national security, "public tranquillity" and the "friendly relations of Singapore with other countries." But that means the government can essentially order platforms to remove what it deems to be false statements that they think are "against the public interest," and even get people to post corrections.

This leash isn’t limited to just media, but includes social media. According to the law, those found to be “malicious actors” face a fine of up to SG$50,000 ($37,000) or five years in prison for their content. Furthermore, if posted using “an inauthentic online account or a bot,” the fine jumps to a maximum of SG$100,000 ($74,000) or a potential 10-year jail term. Even platforms like Facebook and Twitter face fines of up to SG$1 million ($740,000) if they’re caught in the middle of such situations. And since Singapore currently ranks 151 out of 183 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, it’s only natural that activists are concerned about this law giving sweeping power to the government to decide whether particular material posted online is true or false.

“Singapore’s new ‘fake news’ law is a disaster for online expression by ordinary Singaporeans, and a hammer blow against the independence of many online news portals they rely on to get real news about their country beyond the ruling People’s Action Party political filter,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) deputy Asia director Phil Robertson wrote on Twitter. But according to the government, this criticism by HRW is because of “its long-standing practice of issuing biased and one-sided statements about Singapore.”

One of the law’s most worrying aspects is that it can be applied to closed private platforms such as chat groups and social media groups, including apps like WhatsApp, which have end-to-end encryption, where only recipients and senders can see messages.

This law comes after Facebook and the Singapore government were at loggerheads last year because the company refused to remove a post about the city-state’s banks and Malaysia’s scandal-linked 1MDB state fund, that the government claimed to be “false and malicious.”

Even the Asia Internet Coalition, that represents Facebook, Google, Twitter and LinkedIn, weighed in with a piece in Singapore’s Straits Times, suggesting changes to the bill. This opinion piece chalks out specific processes, stresses the importance of an imperial body to vet decisions, suggests exemptions for opinion articles, satire and more, and even asks for “clear and well-defined language and scope.”

In its defence, Singapore’s government said that the law won’t hinder free speech or academic research, and is mainly targeted at malicious trolls, bots and fake accounts. It argues that a country of 5.6 million in which almost everyone has easy internet access is especially vulnerable to misinformation because of its ethnically and religiously diverse society, which is mostly split among Chinese, Indian and Malay communities.

But Singapore is just another Asian player tightening internet security and, with it, possibly free speech. Vietnam passed a draconian cybersecurity law on January 1 while Thailand passed a controversial law in February that gave way too much power to authorities. So, while controlling the spread of fake news is a pressing matter, we also need to understand what it can cost us.

Follow Shamani Joshi on Instagram.

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