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Singapore's anti-fake news law could muzzle free speech

Benjamin Bathke
June 6, 2019

Singapore has recently joined the list of countries seeking to protect their citizens from harmful online content. But many complain the government's move "criminalizes free speech" and encourages self-censorship.

Fake news
Image: imago/Christian Ohde

In May, Singapore joined the list of countries seeking to protect citizens from harmful online content by introducing legislation to combat the spread of false information. Activists, journalists and civil society organizations have vehemently criticized the proposal for "criminalizing free speech" and encouraging self-censorship, among other things. 

The controversial draft law, officially called the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, would give the government sweeping powers to demand "correction notices." In other words, if a government official believes that an offending piece of information is "false or misleading, whether wholly or in part," the official could order platforms like Facebook and Twitter to put up warnings next to disputed posts.

In extreme cases, the networks could be ordered to take the content down. The proposed law also allows for fines of up to 1 million Singaporean dollars ($734,000, €649,000), and up to ten years in prison for individual offenders.

As the number of governments trying to stem the flow of fake news by regulating social media keeps growing in the wake of scandals like Russian manipulation of Facebook in the US elections and disinformation leading to mob violence in India, the question becomes how much of legal and regulatory intervention is necessary to effectively combat disinformation — and when it actually tightens a government’s grip on the digital sphere.

Vague formulations

While the government maintains the provisions in its draft law are necessary to shield Singaporeans from fake news and educate them about the potential damage it can cause — in particular stoking racial and religious tensions — critics argue they legitimize censorship further.

Ian Chong, a political scientist from Singapore, said his main concern was the vague definition of fake news in the draft law, according to which securing "public tranquility," preventing "a diminution of public confidence" in state organs and preserving "friendly relations," all fell under the broad concept of "public interest."

"The administration has given assurances, saying it's not going to be that broad, that there will be subsidiary legislation," Chong told DW. "But no one has seen any legal text to that effect yet." Another source of controversy is Clause 61, which enables ministers to leave out any person or class of persons from the law.

Read moreOpinion: Language between self-censorship and political correctness 

According to Chong, "this potentially allows politicians to exempt their agents, allies and supporters from being punished for using falsehoods against opponents, while using the law to restrict expression by opponents, groups or individuals they do not like."

While Chong believes regulating social media is necessary, he doubts the law's efficacy. Disinformation campaigns often happen on a larger scale and tend to be orchestrated by well-organized agents or organizations with deep pockets and a lot of resources, he said. "It is unclear what this law can do, especially if these organizations don't have a legal presence here ... The law mainly targets individuals, who are not really of concern because they don't have that orchestrated mass effect."

Furthermore, civil society groups claim that hearings of Singapore's "Online Falsehoods" committee, which last September issued a 300-page report with 22 recommendations for combating the spread of misinformation online, are "hardly open or consultative." Moreover, according to Singaporean journalist Kirsten Han, no public consultation has been made since the bill was made public.

Misuse in the future?

Defending the draft law, Singapore's Home Affairs and Law Minister Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam in early May said free speech would not be affected. "Lawyers will know you can define what is true and what is false and refer to facts," Shanmugam said in a speech in the Parliament. "This legislation deals with false statements of fact. It doesn't deal with opinion, it doesn't deal with viewpoints. You can have whatever viewpoints, however reasonable or unreasonable."

However, in an interview with Channel News Asia, Shanmugam said he could not vouch for what future governments might do with the law. Although the law still has to go through the Presidential Council for Minority Rights (PCMR) and get the president's signature before coming into force, a process that usually takes two to three months, it is expected to pass. Singapore's ruling party, which came to power in 1959, currently controls 82 of the 100 seats in Parliament.

Read more: 10 most urgent cases of journalists under threat: June 2019

 "To my knowledge, the PCMR and the president have never turned down any piece of legislation or demanded changes," political scientist Chong said. While he sees potential for misuse, Chong is more worried about the consequences of other regimes adopting Singapore's law, similar to the way China has been exporting surveillance technology and other 'authoritarian tech' to countries like Venezuela.

"Given its extensive reach and vagueness, the law might be copied by regimes that may like to clamp down on criticism, both domestically and abroad," he noted. "If a powerful state like China copied this law, it could extend its reach into faraway places like Europe and North America even further by trying to shut down discussion and criticism there. Having many copycats could even lead to an erosion of better governance like Europe's GDPR."

Read more: Vietnam artists seek 'liberation' from cybersecurity law

A worrying scenario

Until now, social media in Singapore hasn't been viewed with the same urgent concern as Myanmar and the Philippines, countries where Facebook posts allegedly led to ethnic violence against the Rohingya minority and independent news website Rappler warned of troll armies, respectively. But Singapore, a city-state of 5.6 million people, is known for maintaining a tight grip on the media. Reporters Without Borders rates it 151 of 180 countries in its press freedom ranking, which is three spots below Venezuela and two above Belarus.

Read more: Europe's cybersecurity gap threatens infrastructure, elections

Similar to Singapore, other countries in Southeast Asia — Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines — have also justified their measures to counter disinformation using various legal arguments based on national security, the disturbance of public order and hate speech. The Cambodian government has proposed a law targeting fake news alongside crackdowns on independent news outlets, while Vietnam's cybersecurity law requires social media platforms to take down "anti-state" content and reveal user data.

Singapore's new legislation could also force service providers like search engines, social media companies and messaging services to tell the government what websites users have visited. In an opinion piece for the New York Times, law professor Jennifer Daskal called the law a "much bigger threat than any of the fake news or hate speech laws that have come before it" when it comes to privacy. According to Daskal, tracking the viewing habits of users is "likely to become a model for the region and possibly elsewhere."

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