Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill “inconsistent” with international legal standards: ICJ

Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, at least in its current form, is “vague” and “inconsistent” with international legal standards, said the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ).

In an open letter to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Deputy Prime Ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Law Minister K. Shanmugam, and Parliament Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin on 12 Apr, ICJ’s Legal and Policy Director Ian Seiderman wrote on behalf of the Commission: “Its provisions present a real risk that it can be wielded in an arbitrary manner to curtail important discussion of matters of public interest in the public sphere, including content critical of the government.”

“Critical dissent, free exchange and development of opinions, and free access to information are necessary to maintain an informed society and ensure transparency, accountability and informed debate on crucial matters of public interest,” he emphasised.

Seiderman cited Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression David Kaye’s recommendations in Apr last year in terms of what governments can do to manage online content, which included the following:

  • State regulation of online content should entail “smart regulation, not heavy-handed viewpoint-based regulation”;
  • Restriction of content by States should only be made “pursuant to an order by an independent and impartial judicial authority, and in accordance with due process and standards of legality, necessity and legitimacy” and “not impose disproportionate sanctions”; and
  • Any restrictions limiting freedom of expression and opinion must be clearly provided in law and may only be those strictly necessary and proportionate for a narrow range of purposes, such as protection of national security and public order or the rights or reputation of others, in accordance with international law standards.

The Online Falsehood Bill’s provisions “are likely to be unnecessary and disproportionate in application to legitimate aims of ensuring national security or public order”, he added.

For example, wordings such as ‘public tranquility’ and ‘public interest’ are “too broad to constitute legitimate purposes for restriction” when left without a precise definition in the Bill, Seiderman illustrated.

The Bill also fails to define “fundamental terms pertaining to the implementation of the law” such as ‘false statement of fact’ and ‘public interest’, which he argued will hinder individuals from forming a “precise understanding of the law” and to subsequently “regulate their conduct accordingly”.

“They also open the law up to a real risk of misuse by ministers and government authorities charged with its implementation,” warned Seiderman.

While Ministers such as K Shanmugam and S Iswaran have assured that parodies and satirical content do not fall under the scope of the bill, ICJ argued that “defences of public interest, honest mistake, parody and artistic merit are also not provided for under the bill”.

“The bill also does not provide for prompt access to an effective remedy – judicial or administrative – to those aggrieved in the event of allegedly abusive or otherwise unlawful application of the restrictions contained therein.

“There is no recourse available for a direction or order made under the bill to be quashed on judicial review grounds of illegality, irrationality and procedural impropriety,” the letter read.

“We thus urge the Singapore Parliament not to pass into law the Online Falsehoods Bill, at the very least without substantial amendments to address the deficiencies described above,” concluded ICJ.

ICJ is an international human rights non-governmental organization. The Commission itself is a standing group of 60 eminent jurists (including senior judges, attorneys and academics) dedicated to ensuring respect for international human rights standards through the law.

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