This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.
Earlier this year, the Singapore Parliament passed an anti-fake news law that supposedly aims to curb the spread of disinformation. However, many have spoken out against it, saying that it is just a way for the government to police online platforms and private chat groups.
Today, the law comes into force, once again sparking worry among Singaporeans who believe it will take a toll on the already limited freedom of speech in the country. The 2019 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders ranks Singapore 151st out of 180 countries.
Kirsten Han, activist and editor-in-chief of the media outlet New Naratif told AFP that the legislation was “extremely worrying” because “it’s such a broad law that it’s hard to predict how it’s going to be applied.”
“What’s of immediate concern is the chilling effect and the further entrenchment of self-censorship,” she said.
Companies like tech giant Google have also expressed concern over the new law. Google responded to a query by Reuters in May saying it was concerned that the law will “hurt innovation and the growth of the digital information ecosystem.”
But what exactly is the law prohibiting and what does this mean for citizens of the city-state? Here’s what you need to know.
What is it?
Although it’s usually referred to as the “Fake News Law,” its official name is the “Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act.” It intends to control the spread of misinformation, which the government deems to be a threat to national security, “public tranquillity,” and Singapore’s “friendly relations” with other countries. This does not cover opinions, criticisms, satire, and parody.
The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) said that Singapore is vulnerable to fake news because of its position as a financial hub and the presence of multiple ethnicities and religions that make up the local population, who could be easily turned against each other.
The new law gives Singaporean ministers the power to decide whether content on the internet is considered a “falsehood.” A falsehood is defined as “a statement of fact that is false or misleading.” For the law to apply, a minister needs to say why he believes something is false and prove that it is in the best interest of the public for the government to intervene.
What will it change?
People will likely be more cautious of what they share online, even in private chats, because the mandated punishments are no joke.
Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook will be required to delete or correct the supposed falsehood. Ministers can also order for accounts to be blocked if they are deemed to be spreading fake news. Companies that fail to comply with the law can be fined up to SGD$1 Million ($720,000).
Those who disagree with a ruling must appeal to a minister before they can appeal to the High Court .
Fears remain that these laws will cause self-censorship among netizens, who will refrain from posting certain sentiments online in fear of getting penalised under these new laws.
Why is this problematic?
Many are worried that the law can be used against private platforms such as chats and groups, including those with end-to-end encryption. This will impact messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram that are commonly used in Singapore.
"Closed platforms, chat groups, social media groups, can serve as a public megaphone as much as an open platform," Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong said in parliament on Tuesday.
Some also think the new law could influence Singapore’s upcoming elections by allowing the ruling party to dictate what constitutes as "real" and "fake" news.
Speaking to parliament in May, Low Thia Khiang from the opposition Workers’ Party said: “To introduce such a bill is not what the government claims to defend democracy and public interest, it is more like the actions of a dictatorial government that will resort to any means to hold on to absolute power.”
Senior party officials have denied this.