Singaporean 'Fake News' Law Goes Into Effect October 2, Rights Groups Concerned It May Threaten Free Speech

The Marina Bay Sands hotel and resorts (L) and the ArtScience Museum (R) are illuminated under the evening sky in Singapore on March 8, 2019. Roslan Rahman/Getty

A new law meant to shield the people of Singapore from "fake news" goes into effect tomorrow, to the concern of some who believe it will stifle free speech and give unwarranted power to the government.

The Southeast Asian city-state's bill itself reads that it is intended "to prevent the electronic communication in Singapore of false statements of fact, to suppress support for and counteract the effects of such communication, to safeguard against the use of online accounts for such communication and for information manipulation," and give the government the power to decide on other "related matters."

The law forbids the dissemination in Singapore—whether within the country or remotely—of statements the government determines to be false and believes are liable to threaten the nation's national security, threaten the well-being of the public or "incite feelings of enmity, hatred or ill‑will between different groups of persons."

It also prohibits the spread of false information in Singapore that may influence the outcomes of elections or harm the public's trust in the government's ability to perform its duty.

Under the new law, online media outlets, including social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, will be forced to issue corrections and remove content that the Singaporean government determines to be untrue, according to Reuters.

The bill also gives the government the authority to order technology companies to block accounts that spread false information, according to the Singaporean-based newspaper, The Straits Times.

The Straits Times also reported that it will be the government's prerogative to demonstrate why something is false or "fake news," not the duty of the accused to demonstrate why the statements they shared was correct.

Individual people deemed to have shared falsities with malicious intent may face fines up to $100,000 Singaporean dollars (approximately $72,200 U.S. dollars), face up to ten years in prison or both. In cases that involve a company or more than a single individual, the maximum fine increases to $1 million Singaporean dollars (approximately $722,000 U.S. dollars).
Some human rights groups and lawyers condemned the bill when it passed, claiming that it threatens the rights of Singaporeans to express discontent with the government.
"Singapore's leaders have crafted a law that will have a chilling affect on internet freedom throughout south-east Asia, and likely start a new set of information wars as they try to impose their narrow version of 'truth' on the wider world," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch told The Guardian.
The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a group composed of judges, lawyers and legal scholars who campaign against human rights violations all over the world, agreed that the law could allow the government to abuse its power.
"The severe penalties proposed under the bill, its broad scope of territorial jurisdiction and the absence of clear protections for expression pose real risks that it will be misused to clamp down on the free exchange and expression of opinions and information," ICJ's Asia Pacific director, Frederick Rawski, said in an email to Reuters.
Singapore already has journalism laws on the books that some consider strict. Currently, it is ranked 151st out 180 countries for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders, an international nonprofit that monitors and advocates for freedom of expression around the world.
The city-state "does not fall far short of China when it comes to suppressing media freedom," according to the Reporters Without Borders website. It also goes on to say that "Singaporean authorities have also started sending journalists emails threatening them with up to 20 years in prison if they don't remove offensive articles and play by the rules."
Parliament passed the bill, officially called the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, in May of this year after two days of debate, according to The Straits Times. An overwhelming majority of the Parliament's members supported the bill, with 72 voting "yes" and 9 voting "no." There were 3 abstentions from "nominated MPs": members who were nominated by the president and did not have any party affiliation or represent any constituency.

Members of the People's Action Party (PAP), Singapore's ruling political party, have argued that the law is necessary because of the city-state's position as a "global financial hub, its mixed ethnic and religious population and widespread internet access," according to Reuters.

The law contains provisions allowing people convicted of printing falsehoods the right to expedited appeals with court fees starting at $200, The Straits Times reports.

In response to concerns about the costliness of making appeals, Singapore's Minister for Law and Home Affairs, K. Shanmugam, told a crowd at an event for lawyers in April that the government wanted to make appealing violations of the law "fast and relatively inexpensive."

Malaysia, Singapore's closest neighbor, passed legislation to combat "fake news" last year. It was met with similar concerns from press freedom activists and politicians from the opposition party, according to the South China Morning Post.


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