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“Poorly defined” anti-“fake news” Bill “a disaster” for press freedom in Singapore, warn civil rights activists and media practitioners

Despite Law Minister K. Shanmugam’s assurance that the Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill does not “deal with opinions” or “viewpoints”, and that Singaporeans “can have whatever viewpoints however reasonable or unreasonable”, media practitioners and civil rights organisations have expressed concern over the introduction of the Bill in Parliament on Mon (1 Apr).

Kirsten Han, editor-in-chief of Southeast Asian journalism platform New Naratif told New York Times in an email: “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”.

Deputy Asia Director of human rights organisation Human Rights Watch Phil Robertson wrote in an email: “This draft law will be a disaster for human rights, particularly freedom of expression and media press.

“The definitions in the law are broad and poorly defined, leaving maximum regulatory discretion to the government officers skewed to view as “misleading” or “false” any news that challenges Singapore’s preferred political narratives.

“Heavy fines to compel compliance combined with wide-ranging extraterritoriality makes this bill a danger to rights in Singapore as well as internet freedom and expression in Asia and the world.

“Governments and companies around the world should tell Singapore to send this law back to the drafting board,” said Mr Robertson.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced at a gala dinner celebrating the 20th anniversary of CNA on Fri (29 Mar) that under the new Bill, the Government will have the authority to instruct online news platforms to “show corrections or display warnings about online falsehoods so that readers or viewers can see all sides and make up their own minds about the matter”.

“In extreme and urgent cases”, added Mr Lee, “the legislation will also require online news sources to take down fake news before irreparable damage is done”.

Hefty, exorbitant fines up to S$1mil may be imposed as punishment against entities spreading “false statements of fact” under proposed Act

The Bill intends “to prevent the electronic communication of” what the Government views as “false statements of fact in Singapore” and “to enable measures to be taken to counteract the effects of such communication”.

Such “false statements of fact” may range from statements that are deemed “prejudicial” to Singapore’s security and multi-racial and/or multi-religious harmony to those with the capacity to “influence the outcome of an election” of a member of public office and “diminish public confidence” in the Government and public service.

The new legislation also aims at stopping “the financing, promotion and other support of online locations” that the Government deems to “repeatedly communicate false statements of fact” in the Republic, in addition to putting in place means to “enhance disclosure of information concerning paid content directed towards a political end”, which will possibly include the power to cut off advertisement revenue should a content provider be found guilty of making “false statements of fact” for the third time in six months.

Section 7 of the proposed Act states that “communication of false statements of fact in Singapore” should not be done whether “in” or “outside” the Republic, which infers that even foreign-based publications and tech companies making and publishing statements about Singapore that are deemed to be untrue by the Government may not be exempt from the scope of the legislation.

Any misuse of “online accounts and bots” will also be considered an offence should the Bill be passed and enacted in order to “detect, control and safeguard against coordinated inauthentic behaviour”.

Individuals found guilty of using “inauthentic online accounts” or “bots” to propagate such statements shall be subject to a fine not exceeding S$50,000 or be jailed for a term not exceeding 5 years or to both under Section 7(2) should the Bill be passed and enacted, and to a fine not exceeding $500,000 “in any other case”.

For individuals who are found guilty of making “false statements of fact”, a fine not exceeding S$100,000, or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years, or to both, may be imposed under the proposed Act.

More shockingly, a fine up to S$1mil may be imposed “in any other case”.

The excessively broad authority granted upon the Minister who has the power to issue directions – whether to correct or stop the communication of statements deemed “false” – under Part 3 of the proposed legislation is also evident in Section 17.

Section 17 of the proposed Act states that while appeals to the High Court are allowed, “no appeal may be made to the High Court by any person unless the person has first applied to the Minister” concerned “to vary or cancel” the Direction issued.

The Minister must have also “refused the application whether in whole or in part” for a party to make an appeal in the High Court against the Part 3 Directions.

TODAY quoted Ms Han as saying: “In my view, there aren’t enough checks and balances — there is the avenue to appeal to the High Court, but how many Singaporeans would afford the time and money to apply to the High Court to get a minister’s direction overturned?

“From what I understand, France’s anti-fake-news law allows election candidates to sue for the removal of contested content. This means that it still goes to a court first, and a judge will rule on whether the content will be removed.

“But Singapore’s law gives ministers the power to order removal, and only after you fail in your appeal to the minister can you go to court, and even then, the court can only overturn the decision in limited circumstances,” she added.

Tech giants reviewing Bill, express concern over possible encroachment of authority

Under Section 48 of the proposed legislation, which concerns the code of practice, a Competent Authority – a statutory board such as the Info-communications Media Development Authority or another government body – based on the instructions of a Minister may “require a digital advertising intermediary or an internet intermediary to” do the following:

  • Put in place measures to detect non-compliance with any specified due diligence measures,
  • Keep specified records; and
  • Provide specified reports within a specified time following the non-compliance.

The measures may be taken “in” or “outside” Singapore, or even both, according to Section 48.

Additionally, Section 48(4) will grant the relevant “Competent Authority” the power to “vary a code of practice”, including adding anything to it, or to revoke said code of practice.

Managing Director of Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) Jeff Paine said on Mon that it is gravely disappointed “by the lack of meaningful opportunities for public consultation during the drafting process” of the Bill, “given the significant implications it could have for diverse stakeholders, including industry, media and civil society, in Singapore, the region and internationally”.

Stressing that “prescriptive legislation should not be the first solution in addressing what is a highly nuanced and complex issue”, he warned that the Bill’s overreaching scope will grant the Singapore government “full discretion over what is considered true or false”.

“As the most far-reaching legislation of its kind to date, this level of overreach poses significant risks to freedom of expression and speech, and could have severe ramifications both in Singapore and around the world,” added Mr Paine.

Noting that it “will be studying the bill in the coming days”, AIC – which includes Facebook, Twitter and Google – said that it will continue to work “closely with the Government and other stakeholders to tackle misinformation”, while also expressing its hope “that the enforcement of this legislation will not be at the expense of the benefits that public debate and exchange of ideas can bring”.

Facebook’s vice-president of public policy for Asia-Pacific Simon Milner said that the social media giant was “concerned with aspects of the law that grant broad powers to the Singapore executive branch to compel us to remove content they deem to be false and proactively push a government notification to users”.

The company added that while the Bill “already reflects a number of investments” it has made in the process of fighting the spread of “false news and disrupt attempts to manipulate civic discourse”, it is “concerned with aspects of the law that grant broad powers to the Singapore executive branch to compel us to remove content they deem to be false and proactively push a government notification to users”.

A Twitter spokesperson told CNA that the company is “still reviewing” the Bill “to assess its implications”, while a Google spokesperson said in response to the tabling of the Bill: “(We) urge the government to allow for a full and transparent consultation on the proposed legislation”.