Singapore’s proposed fake news law: the good, and the bad

Fake news is a very real threat, having great influence on world events- including presidential elections. It’s pretty dangerous; in the US, a gunman walked into a pizzeria in Washington D.C and started firing because he fell prey to false rumours spread online.

As such, many countries have begun to take action against the phenomenon, including Australia and Singapore.

However, Singapore’s proposed legislation has raised many eyebrows, both domestically and internationally.

According to CNA, Reporters without Borders had earlier criticised the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (POFMA), tabled in Parliament on Apr 1, as “Orwellian” and “a major obstacle to the freedom to inform in Singapore”.

Singapore is currently ranked 151st out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom- three places behind Russia.

Kirsten Han, a Singaporean journalist and activist, described the legislation as “worryingly broad.”

“The bill gives ministers so much power and discretion — any minister can direct individuals or websites to post corrections or take down content, or order access to content to be blocked, and these orders have to be complied with first, even if one is going to appeal the direction in the courts,” Ms. Han said in an email to the New York Times.

“You’re basically giving the autocrats another weapon to restrict speech, and speech is pretty restricted in the region already,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Singaporean government defends bill

The Singaporean government has stressed that the law is targeted towards the deliberate spreading of false facts, and does not cover personal opinion, criticism, satire, or parody.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong defended the legislation on April 9, saying that “Singapore is not the only one who has taken legislating on this issue; the French have done so, the Germans have done so, the Australians have just done something similar and very draconian,” he said.

He also said that “what we have done has worked for Singapore and it’s our objective to continue to do things which will work for Singapore”.

Here’s some clarification by the Minister for Law and Home affairs, K Shanmugam:

[ Countering Online Falsehoods ]The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill was tabled in Parliament yesterday.The proposed law targets false statements of fact – not opinions, not criticisms. There’s been some debate online over the Government becoming the “arbiter of truth”. This is not the case. Ultimately, disagreement over truth and falsity will be decided by the Courts.People can – and should – continue to express their opinion, no matter how critical.If you feel Singapore Ministers are elitist, or the Government is to blame for the rising cost of living, that’s your opinion – which is fine. Legitimate public discourse forms the backbone of any democratic nation. But, if falsehoods are left unchecked, society will be worse off; trust between our people and in our institutions will be damaged. Video below sets out these points.

Posted by K Shanmugam Sc on Tuesday, April 2, 2019

In his Facebook post, Minister K Shanmugam clarified that the courts, rather than the government, is the “final arbiter of truth” as any disagreements can be brought to court.

However, Kirsten Han, editor of New Naratif, a regional-focused news site, says that’s not a realistic option for most Singaporeans who don’t have the time, money or the will to go up against the government.

“I would question the number of alternative sites and Singaporeans who would have the resources to take the government to the high court in an attempt to overturn a minister’s direction,” she was quoted as saying by the BBC.

In response, the Ministry of Law has clarified that such a method is the most cost-effective, and financial help will be made available.

Still some controversial components

These ministers’ points are very valid; however, there remain a few controversial parts of the bill.

For example, critics have pointed out the ambiguity of the phrasing of the bill.

“Several sections [4(f), 7(1)(b)(vi), 8(3)(f), 9(3)(f)] say that a person must not do anything in or outside Singapore, according to the law, to ‘diminish public confidence’ in a state body,” Professor Chong Ja Ian, a political scientist working in Singapore, told the BBC.

“What does ‘diminish public confidence’ mean? A minister can have a lot of latitude to determine whether a statement diminishes public confidence or not.”

Furthermore, Professor Chong also refers to Clause 61 which, according to the draft bill, “enables the Minister to exempt a person or class of persons from any provision of the Bill”.

The way the law is worded suggests the government “can exempt anybody from this act that they want,” he says. Any minister can make anybody he or she chooses exempt from the law. The fear is that if power is abused, the law leaves open the possibility that a government official would not be brought to account for potentially spreading falsehoods.

The law is a step in the right direction as fake news is a dangerous threat. And the government has assured us of the new laws’ use- not for suppression, but to tackle deliberate online falsehoods.

However, my personal opinion is that there is potential for misuse of the law in the future- just one corrupt minister might abuse the law for his or her own purposes.

Any law can be misused for rogue purposes. Ultimately, a price will be paid by the government of the day if the law is misused to clamp down on dissent. How it is applied will also be subjected to the court of public opinion. Hence, governmental action must not only be in conformity with the law, but also endowed with legitimacy.

Eugene K B Tan, Associate Professor of Law at Singapore Management University and a former Nominated Member of Parliament in Singapore, in an article published by SCMP.

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