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Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong. Source: CNA

Bill on deliberate online falsehoods to be tabled possibly by the first half of next year, says Senior Minister Edwin Tong as the prospect of GE2019 looms

Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong has hinted at the tabling of a Bill aimed at curbing the spread of deliberate online falsehoods in the coming months after numerous consultations and debates among legislators and members of the public surrounding the potential anti-“fake news” laws.

Mr Tong’s revelation came not long after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had mentioned the possibility of bringing forward the next General Election, which might indicate that Singaporeans will soon be heading to the ballot boxes as early as next year.

In an interview with Channel NewsAsia, Mr Tong, a member of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, stated that the impact of falsehoods on democratic institutions and processes is “more general” and “impacts daily life much more than just elections alone”.

“If you have provisions that deal with how you tackle falsehoods … [and] stem its proliferation, that would in many ways go towards the same objectives as well during elections,” he said, adding that the Government will study the necessity of implementing laws in the process of combating falsehoods during the election period.

He added that the issue of “fake news” should firstly be dealt with in a “general nature” before deciding “whether there needs to be any special rules for elections subsequently”.

Addressing concerns surrounding the potential abuse of “fake news” laws via the stifling of dissenting voices, Mr Tong stressed that “good, effective and strong public discourse is not the same as saying (anything a person wants).”

“When you have public discourse riddled with false information, or bots which amplify the false information, or fake accounts that … overblow a situation … That’s not effective public discourse, that is discussing something on false premises.”

However, TOC observes that majority, if not all, fake accounts on Singapore’s internet landscape seems to adopt a pro-People’s Action Party stance or to defend the government’s policy against public criticism.

Malaysia’s Anti-Fake News Act was part of Barisan Nasional’s “last-minute own goals” prior to GE14: Merdeka Centre

Previously across the Causeway, the tabling and subsequent enactment of the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 on 2 Apr and 11 Apr respectively were among the measures dubbed by Malaysian opinion research firm Merdeka Centre as Barisan Nasional (BN)’s “last-minute own goals” in the period leading up to the 14th General Election (GE14) that took place on 9 May, which witnessed BN’s downfall after six decades of rule.

The Act has since been repealed by the new Pakatan Harapan government, as there are “existing laws” to deal with the problem of fake news, said Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Mohamed Hanipa Maidin.

In his winding-up speech, he told legislators in Dewan Rakyat – the lower house in Parliament – on 16 Aug: “We don’t need new legislation. We already have existing laws, such as the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 and others that can deal with this issue.”

Speaking in response to BN’s Azalina Othman Said – former Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department who played a significant role in passing the Anti-Fake News Act under the Najib Razak-led government previously – Mohamed Hanipa added that the police and other law enforcement authorities should play a greater role in combating the spread of fake news.

“During Barisan Nasional’s time, the police were used to protect them [BN politicians].

“They were not used to fight crime,” he charged, adding that “with the Pakatan Harapan government, the police will be used to fight crime, and not to cover us [instead]”.

However, in what appears to be the first rejection of a Bill by Dewan Negara – the upper house of the Malaysian Parliament – the Senate had voted against the repeal of the Anti-Fake News Act on 12 Sep, which would result in a retabling of the Bill with amendments.

Malay Mail reported that Opposition Senators, primarily from BN, voted against the repeal of the Act, as they believe that “the law prohibiting misinformation could be improved”.

Senator Khairul Azwan Harun from United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) said: “I understand that this is a very unpopular law, but we must also recognise that we live in world of fast information. Just this week the PM was a target of fake news.

“Grand old institutions, such as that of the US democracy, have had their elections compromised precisely because of targeted misinformation.

“The threat is real and I fear our political landscape is too young to be further polarised because of fake news,” warned Khairul.

Malay Mail also highlighted that out of 68 Senators in the Dewan Negara, 52 had taken part in the bloc voting process.

Dewan Negara Speaker SA Vigneswaran told the Malay Mail that 28 Senators rejected the repeal of the Bill, 21 were in support of the repeal, and only three senators abstained from voting.

Laws targeting “fake news” susceptible to potential abuse such as suppressing legitimate online dissent and to “deflect attention from important policy debates” pre- and post-election

Research Fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) Gulizar Haciyakupoglu, in her analysis of Malaysia’s Anti-Fake News Act and its potential impact on Malaysia’s GE14, argued that while it is “unlikely that any investigations into “fake news” allegations made in the lead up to the election will receive sentencing before polling day,” campaigns made by opposition candidates and parties “may be exhausted by court cases filed against them under this Act”.

In her analysis, published on The Diplomat on 26 Apr, just less than two weeks before GE14, Dr Gulizar also highlighted that “Some opposition candidates may feel threatened by the penalties specified in the Act”, adding that if the penalties succeed in instilling fear in the opposition candidates, “such scenarios might impede the opposition’s efforts to popularize their arguments, reach wide audiences, and garner sufficient support”.

“Moreover, the “fake news” label may be further exploited to discredit opponents in the campaigning period, rendering it not only a defamatory weapon but also a tool to deflect attention from important policy debates,” she warned.

Dr Gulizar also raised the potential abuse of laws targeting “fake news”, which can manifest itself in the suppression of online dissent “by labeling unfavorable comments on contentious topics, such as the scandal surrounding sovereign wealth fund 1MDB, as “fake.”

“This risk is of particular importance during both the campaigning period and for post-election discussions, as the tight control over traditional media has rendered the internet the most viable avenue for critical voices to promulgate narratives alternative to the Malaysian government’s,” she stressed.

However, Dr Gulizar added that should “fence-sitters perceive the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) to be exploiting the Act for political gain and to silence dissent”, it may compel “undecided voters” to “cast their ballots against BN candidates” as the “legitimacy of the ruling coalition” comes into question.