Proposed stern measures to combat disinformation and “fake news” in Singapore have sparked a wider debate on how global governments should regulate proliferating online spaces.
Tabled into Singapore’s parliament on Monday, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill proposes that websites and social media platforms publish warnings or “corrections” on content that the state deems false, though without removing the said content.
If passed, the legislation will empower authorities to demand posts be removed through a take-down order. News outlets and social media platforms, including global tech giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, are all also expected to be affected by the measures.
In certain cases, the bill also allows the government to cut off a website’s ability to profit without shutting it down. Meanwhile, any individual found to be spreading online falsehoods with “malicious” intent would face high fines and possible jail terms.
The legislation is currently up for debate in parliament and will soon be put to a vote.
Developments will be closely monitored in the context of upcoming general elections, where the long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which is in the midst of a generational leadership succession, must hold polls by January 2021.
To be sure, there is a broad consensus within the international community on the need to tackle disinformation campaigns in unregulated digital realms. However, coming up with solutions that protect public interests and civil liberties is proving tricky.
Some observers believe Singapore’s proposed “fake news” law could set a new global standard for regulating and censoring online spaces, one that repressive governments worldwide could aim to follow.
Singapore’s approach “will be closely studied by other countries seeking to deal with the scourge of disinformation,” said Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at Singapore Management University.
If enacted, the bill is poised to be one of the toughest laws anywhere against fake news—an issue that’s sparked violence and deepened communal divisions across Asia. Singapore’s Law Ministry has described the bill as a means to protect society from division and instability.
But to many political watchers, it is being seen as the PAP’s latest tool to promote a self-serving political narrative. Critics have expressed alarm that the bill allows PAP government ministers to solely determine what is fake and what is not, opening the way for potential bias.
“If someone other than a judge with due process gets to decide whether content is false or not, there is potential for abuse,” Daniel Burnett, a litigator specializing in media and defamation at Canadian law firm Owen Bird, told Asia Times.
It’s risky for state entities to decide whether information is false “because governments have a stake in getting favorable media reports about itself,” added Luis Teodoro, a trustee at the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility and former dean of the University of the Philippines’ College of Mass Communication.
According to the bill, ministers can tell regulators to issue corrections or take-down orders against “false” content as long as it’s in the public interest for ministers to do so. The relevant watch dog must then act on the minister’s instructions.
Acting in the public interest is defined broadly as doing something that protects Singapore’s security, foreign relations, health, finances, safety; prevents influence on elections; averts social tensions; and stops confidence in the government from being eroded.
“The bill, once enacted, can easily provide a refuge for public officials who, by declaring any published online content as false, can escape public accountability,” said Tess Bacalla, executive director of the Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance, a press freedom group.
At the crux of the matter is whether PAP ministers will target information that portrays the government in a negative light.
Last year, the party called a 2017 report on Singapore’s freedom of expression by Human Rights Watch a “deliberate falsehood,” leading many to believe that broad criticism of PAP policies could be labelled similarly under the bill.
But in a Facebook video on Tuesday, Law Minister K Shanmugam clarified that the bill won’t target opinions or criticisms, just false statements of fact.
As an example of the latter, he pointed to Myanmar, where fake claims of a Buddhist woman being raped by Muslims caused communal violence in a 24-hour period. Viewpoints that rebuke the state over any issue, including human rights and civil liberties, won’t be covered by the bill, Shanmugam insisted.
The court, not the government, will be the final arbiter of truth, the politician said. If individuals or companies disagree with a state-issued correction or takedown notice, they have the option to appeal to the high court. Doing so, however, is a pricey endeavor.
Filing fees alone are expected to be around S$1000 (US$739) and if the defendant loses, they could be made to pay costs of over S$8000 (US$5,910), according to Singaporean historian and Oxford University Research Associate Ping Tjin Thum. Most people facing those costs are likely to just remove the disputed content and comply, he told Asia Times.
In making the appeals process so expensive, the government is able to “silence dissent without resorting to more obviously draconian legislation,” he said. “They [the PAP] can argue that you admitted wrongdoing, when actually the power imbalance is such that you never had a chance to begin with.”
A former national swimmer, Thum is a well-known government critic who made headlines last year when he said the PAP leadership was the country’s biggest purveyor of fake news—a bold assertion that resulted in a six-hour public debate between the academic and Shanmugam.
Activists have long pointed to rampant self-censorship in Singapore, where domestic newspapers, radio stations and television channels are owned by companies linked to the government.
The ruling party maintains strict rules on freedom of expression to ensure political stability and racial harmony among the predominantly ethnic Chinese and minority Malay and Indian populations.
Individuals and media organizations that criticize the government or judiciary risk financially crippling civil defamation lawsuits, while those deemed as promoting ill-will between groups of people can face imprisonment and hefty fines under the Sedition Act.
Singapore ranked 132nd out of 167 countries in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s media freedom ranking published last year. The situation could deteriorate if parliament approves the bill, legal experts say.
General regulation of online content can limit freedom of expression, especially among journalists, and result in self-censorship, said Flutura Kusari, legal advisor at the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom.
Instead of rushing to pass laws, Singapore’s government should engage in global discussions on how important the free flow of online information is, she said.
If approved, the bill will confirm that the city-state “does not fall far short of China when it comes to suppressing media freedoms,” said Daniel Bastard, head of the Asia-Pacific desk at Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom group.
He expressed concern about the legislation’s potential effect on political dissent, which is already handicapped by strict laws on public assemblies.
Currently, just sharing fake news on social media can get citizens in trouble.
Last year, financial advisor and blogger Leong Sze Hian shared a link to a controversial article about Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Facebook, a click of the button that earned him a defamation lawsuit accusing him of trying to maliciously damage the premier.
The bill could be “the most overreaching yet among the city-state’s raft of repressive legislation to date,” said SEAPA’s Bacalla.
The law’s vague definition of false statement of fact will likely make online news outlets “deeply concerned about potentially violating the law and paying the steep price that comes with it,” she told Asia Times. “As such, they will likely resort to more measures that will be tantamount to varying degrees of self-censorship.”
Singaporean officials had not replied to Asia Times’ request for comment at the time of publication, but advocates of the bill say its impact on civil liberties is being overblown.
“The proposed law takes an even-handed approach towards speech and expression,” Tan of the Singapore Management University said. Concerns of a crackdown on critical voices are “exaggerated” since the bill does not seek to censor except in “egregious cases,” he continued.
The fundamental liberty of free speech “must be exercised in a responsible manner,” he stated. And if the proposed “fake news” law is misused to clamp down on dissent, “a price will be paid by the Singapore government,” he added.