Singapore passes controversial ‘fake news’ law which critics fear will stifle free speech

Singapore has passed a controversial bill that could equip the government with extensive powers to police online media and free speech.

The bill was first drafted last month and, as had been expected, it passed 72-9 in Singapore’s parliament, dominated by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), late on Wednesday.

As we reported last month, the bill caused concern through its potential to stifle free speech, as a key feature enables the government, and in fact any minister, to force “corrections” to be added to online content that is deemed to be “false.”

Beyond media, the flex also extends to 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. 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. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter face fines of up to SG$1 million ($740,000) for their role in such situations.

Designed to cover “a false statement of fact… has been or is being communicated in Singapore” or cases where politicians believe that issuing a correction is “in the public interest,” the bill also claims reach overseas — or, rather, intended reach overseas. Politicians can trigger it in situations judged to be “in the interest of friendly relations of Singapore with other countries.”

It remains to be seen how much success the Singapore government will have with its efforts. Domestic media may well be under control — the World Press Freedom Index ranks Singapore 151 out of 183 countries and self-censorship is common — but influencing newsrooms based overseas and social networks will likely prove difficult.

Facebook, for example, last November resisted calls to remove content flagged as defamatory by the government. That clearly frustrated officials.

“This shows why we need legislation to protect us from deliberate online falsehoods,” the Ministry of Law wrote in an announcement at the time.

How a takedown would work — and how the government might access encrypted chats on apps like WhatsApp and Telegram, which are also part of its focus — also remains unclear at this point.

The law has been criticized by free speech groups.

“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 deputy Asia director Phil Robertson wrote on Twitter.

“Singapore’s leaders have crafted a law that will have a chilling effect on internet freedom throughout Southeast 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 added.

Human Rights Watch — which came out with strong criticism of the bill last month — was criticized by the Singapore government last month, which hit back at “its long-standing practice of issuing biased and one-sided statements about Singapore.”

Meanwhile, on the more assistive end of the dissenting voices, the Asia Internet Coalition — a group that represents Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Line and others — penned an editorial in Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper suggesting changes to the bill.

The opinion piece — which, irony alert, is restricted by a paywall — recommended specific processes, an imperial body to vet decisions, exemptions for opinion articles, satire and more, as well as a request for “clear and well-defined language and scope.”

Robertson is concerned that other counties in Southeast Asia will take the ball Singapore has punted and run with it, thereby creating other restrictive online content policies. That’s already happened to some extent. In Vietnam, a draconian cybersecurity law went into operation on January 1 while Thailand passed a controversial law in February granting a wide scope of powers to authorities.