Singapore fake news law a ‘disaster’ for freedom of speech

Human Rights Watch condemns ‘hammer blow’ for online news portal independence

Two men on mobile phones in Singapore: a new law give the government control over content of  online media platforms.  Photograph: Wallace Woon/EPA

Two men on mobile phones in Singapore: a new law give the government control over content of online media platforms. Photograph: Wallace Woon/EPA

 

Singapore’s parliament has passed legislation against “fake news”, a move that has been criticised by rights groups, journalists and tech firms over fears it could be used to clamp down on freedom of speech.

The law, which passed on Wednesday, will require online media platforms to carry corrections or remove content the government considers to be false, with penalties for perpetrators including prison terms of up to 10 years or fines up to one million Singapore dollars (€650,000).

Technology giants including Google and Facebook have said they see the law giving Singapore’s government too much power in deciding what qualifies as true or false.

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

“Singapore’s leaders have crafted a law that will have a chilling affect 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.”

Subject to abuse

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), an association made up of senior judges, lawyers and legal scholars who campaign to uphold human rights standards around the world, said the law could be subject to abuse.

“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.

Law minister K Shanmugam earlier told parliament the legislation should not be feared. “Free speech should not be affected by this Bill. We are talking here about falsehoods. We are talking about bots . . . trolls . . . fake accounts and so on,” Mr Shanmugam said.

Democratic society

“The working of a democratic society depends on the members of that society being informed and not misinformed.”

The Prevention from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill passed with 72 members voting in favour. All nine opposition lawmakers voted against, local media reported. Three nominated members of parliament, who are appointed directly by the president and not affiliated to political parties, all abstained.

Singapore is ranked 151st out of 180 countries – below Russia and Myanmar – in the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders, a non-government group that promotes freedom of information.

The wealthy city-state says it is vulnerable to fake news because of its position as a global financial hub, its mixed ethnic and religious population and widespread internet access. – Guardian/Reuters