POFMA is yet another tool by the Singapore government to suppress criticism and dissent, said FORUM-ASIA and CIVICUS

In a joint statement, The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and the global civil society alliance CIVICUS have voiced ‘extreme concern’ over the new ‘anti-fake news’ legislation proposed by the Singapore authorities.

The statement said, “Our organisations believe that the stated aim of the bill – to deal with online misinformation – is merely a smokescreen to increase curbs on the freedom of expression, and to further silence dissent in this already tightly controlled State.”

They urge the Singapore government to “discard the bill immediately”, saying that while the government has insisted that the proposed bill is necessary for the protection of Singaporeans from fake news and to educate them on the potential harm it can cause such as inciting racial and religious disharmony, “an initial analysis of the bill shows that it is a blatant attempt to shield the government from criticism”.

They added that the provisions in the bill are inconsistent with human rights laws and standards on freedom of expression and information.

Echoing similar concerns already voiced by other critics of the bill, the two organisations say that this new law give authorities the power to order the correction of online content when there is a ‘false statement of fact’ but does not provide any real definition of what constitutes a false statement of fact.

The bill authorises any minister to order internet service providers to post statements indicating that content is false, or disable access to certain content altogether. Further, it forces internet service providers, digital advertising intermediaries, and companies to restrict access to funding to such ‘false’ news sites. The bill also imposes heavy penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment and S$1 million fine for violations which can be imposed on both individuals or owners/operators of online platforms as well as intermediaries such as social networking sites, search engines, internet messaging services and video sharing services.

The statement said, “FORUM-ASIA and CIVICUS believe that the bill provides unnecessary and excessive powers to the authorities to decide on the veracity of online information and that it can be abused to target online criticism of the State, including from activists and civil society groups.”

They continued, “Over the years, we have seen how the Singaporean Government has consistently used the judicial system to harass and prosecute legitimate criticism. This bill will be another tool in their arsenal of suppression.”

The organisations are urging the Singapore government to “adhere to the recommendation from the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression” which calls for countries to promote access to information, repeals laws that unduly restricts expression online, and refrain from imposing disproportionate sanctions on internet intermediaries. The rapporteur has also called for countries to refrain from adopting laws that would require the proactive monitoring or filtering of content which is ‘inconsistent with the right to privacy’.

“Research conducted by FORUM ASIA and CIVICUS on the CIVICUS Monitor, which considers the civic space in Singapore as ‘obstructed’, highlights how the authorities have systematically used laws, such as the Public Order Act, the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act and other restrictive laws, to criminalise free expression and peaceful assembly, and has failed to create an enabling environment for civil society and human rights defenders,” concluded the statement.