Fake news bills and ASEAN human rights declaration

by Teo Soh Lung

This is really crazy. I have read so many statements urging the Singapore government to reconsider, amend or withdraw the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill tabled before parliament on 1 April 2019. I wish the government was merely playing an April Fool’s joke. But no, it is dead serious in wanting to see the bill through. It is stoutly defending its stand in Malaysia and the world and proclaiming itself as the leader in tackling the spread of fake news without recognising that governments are the greatest culprits in such crimes.

At the opening of the 29th Inter-Pacific Bar Association Annual Meeting and Conference yesterday, PM Lee Hsien Loong made it clear that the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill “will hold online platforms accountable and empower the government to issue correction orders or in serious cases takedown orders when online platforms publish false statements of fact”. He omitted mention of the hefty financial penalties and severe terms of imprisonment that would befall those unfortunate “culprits”. Big corporations, whether local or foreign better beware!

We all now know that the Bill does not define what is a “false statement of fact”. Whether it is or is not a false statement of fact simply depends on the whims and fancies of our ministers. If they are “satisfied” that it is a false statement, then it is a false statement. This is the language already used in many Singapore laws, including the Internal Security Act. Such laws give untrammelled power to the executive.

I was surprised at the earnest tone of the prime minister when he spoke of the rule of law and how the Singapore government will always abide by the rule of law. Sadly, to me, Singapore has enacted so many laws that removed our human rights that it is better to read the rule of law as the rule by law, a term so often used in Malaysia before UMNO lost power. Any infringement of the written law is a crime. One person art performance or protest is a crime according to the law.

One Facebook friend asked me why people like Seelan and Jolovan who knew that our laws proscribe one person protest or procession deliberately disobey the law.

I used to think that way too – laws must be obeyed, why bother to get into trouble with the law. But when obeying such laws deprive us of our rights as human beings – our right to speak and express our thoughts in public as long as it is peaceful, are we being treated as human beings with rights accorded to us by the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration signed in 2012?

One of the many general principles enunciated in the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration is this:

“The enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms must be balanced with the performance of corresponding duties as every person has responsibilities to all other individuals, the community and the society where one lives. IT IS ULTIMATELY THE PRIMARY RESPONSIBILITY OF ALL ASEAN MEMBER STATES TO PROMOTE AND PROTECT ALL HUMAN RIGHTS AND FUNDAMENTAL FREEDOMS.”

The people of Singapore did not have a say in the drafting of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. The Singapore government itself signed this important document. It is, therefore, its duty to ensure that laws promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms. The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill clearly does not protect human rights. It enables the government to control the people even more when it is passed into law.

This was first published on Function 8’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission.