Controversial “fake news” law passed in Singapore

By on 20/05/2019
Whose truth? Singapore’s new law gives ministers the power to censor digital platforms carrying information they deem false.

Singapore’s parliament has passed legislation aimed at halting the spread of fake news, after the government said the country could be vulnerable to the spread of disinformation online.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) requires online media platforms to correct or remove information the authorities deem to be untrue. The managers of those which fail or refuse to do so face tough financial penalties or up to ten years in jail.

The bill was passed on Wednesday May 8 by a vote of 72-9, after a two-day debate. During the bill’s examination, minister for law K Shanmugam set out the government’s concerns that other countries are seeking to “weaken” Singapore through a disinformation campaign.

Battling against bots

According to Yahoo News Singapore, during his opening speech at the POFMA bill’s second reading on May 7, Shanmugam said: “Democracy itself is under serious threat. It would be unwise for us to just watch and do nothing because it can sweep us over very quickly.

“Trolls, bots, can, and have, been used in Singapore. We have noticed spikes in activity from inauthentic accounts when we have discussions on various issues of public concern.

“One example: whenever there are bilateral issues with Malaysia, these go up. We recently estimated it went up about 30 per cent.”

Shanmugam later told the Straits Times that allowing “these lies to proliferate and damage our infrastructure of fact” would “damage our institutions and, frankly, no mainstream political party will benefit from it.”

He added: “You’ve seen what happens in the US, you’ve seen what happened in the UK; the centre gets hollowed out, it’s the extremes that benefit.”

Ministers as arbiters of truth

But the move has sent alarm bells ringing among civil rights watchdogs and activists, because it places in the hands of ministers the power to effectively censor information that they deem to be false. The bill’s opponents have also pointed out that the law will apply not just to social media platforms, but also to private messaging apps such as Whatsapp.

In an open letter to the Singapore Government at the end of last month, David Kaye, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression, urged ministers to reconsider the law, saying it was “deeply problematic” and would “serve as a basis to deter fully legitimate speech, especially public debate, criticism of government policy, and political dissent.” 

Kaye warned of the risk that the law’s “overbroad definition of falsehood will lead to the criminalization and suppression of a wide range of expressive conduct, including criticism of the government, and the expression of unpopular, controversial or minority opinions.” And he criticised the lack of independent review of ministers’ decisions, and weaknesses in the planned appeals process.

Information war warning

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, called it a “disaster for online expression by ordinary Singaporeans,” and said it was “a hammer blow against the independence of many online news portals”.

“Singapore’s leaders have crafted a law that will have a chilling effect 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,” he said in a statement to Reuters.

The law is due to be implemented in the coming weeks. In an interview with tech and lifestyle site Vulcan Post, Shanmugam reassured people there would be “no criminal liability” and “no civil liability” for those who share fake news “in good faith’’, reported the Singapore Independent.

Another approach

Meanwhile Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, announced plans on Thursday to launch a digital charter aimed at tackling online extremism, misinformation and electoral interference.

Speaking at a technology conference in Paris, he said: “The platforms are failing their users and they’re failing our citizens, they have to step up in a major way to counter disinformation. 

“If they don’t we will hold them to account and there will be meaningful financial consequences,” Canada’s National Observer reported.

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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