Just a day before the Singapore parliament passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POMFA), Amnesty International (AI) called for the Singapore government o ‘drop plans’ to enact a law that ‘would dramatically curtail freedom of expression in the country and beyond.
The statement released on the Amnesty International website on 8 May noted that the bill, which was introduced last month on 1 April to “protect society from damage by online falsehoods created by ‘malicious actors’”, would give the Singapore authorities ‘unchecked powers’ to clamp down on online views which the government disagrees with.
Nicholas Bequelin, AI’s Regional Director for East and Southeast Asia said, “Singapore already has a woeful track record of treating peaceful critics like criminals.” He added that Singaporeans ‘have every reason to fear that this law is designed to gag online expression once and for all’, given the country’s track record of censoring criticism of the government.
Mr Bequelin said of POMFA, “It criminalises free speech and allows the government almost unfettered power to censor dissent. It doesn’t even provide any real definition of what is true or false or, even more worrying, ‘misleading.’”
The law which passed with support from 74 members of parliament – nine Worker’s Party MPs and Non-Constituency MPs rejected it while three Nomination MP abstained from voting – provides for severe criminal penalties including up to 10 years of imprisonment for anyone found guilty of breaking the law. The act also requires tech companies like Facebook and Twitter to remove content to display corrections as per the government’s instructions.
Mr Bequelin said, “This law would give Singapore overwhelming leverage over the likes of Facebook and Twitter to remove whatever the government determines is ‘misleading’.”
“This is an alarming scenario. While tech firms must take all steps to make digital spaces safe for everyone, this does not provide governments an excuse to interfere with freedom of expression – or rule over the news feed,” he added.
The human rights organisation said “The draft law is part of a long-running campaign by the Singaporean government to clamp down on peaceful government critics through repeated restrictions on the media and criminal indictments against activists, among other measures.”
Highlighting the Select Committee hearings held last year on online falsehoods, AI said that the sessions were “marred by baseless criticism of civil society activists and the forced removal of Han Hui Hui, human rights defender and political activist during a hearing on 29 March 2019”.
The statement went on to describe how Ms Han was forcibly evicted from the public gallery for holding up the cover of a book titled ‘Authoritarian Rule of Law, Legislation, Discourse and Legitimacy in Singapore’.
AI also pointed out the repeated action taken against well-known activist Jolovan Wham who has been a ‘repeated target of repressive laws’, including the latest one in March 2019 when he was charged with ‘illegal assembly’ merely for posing for a photo in front of the State Court Building, holding up a sign demanding that the government drop the criminal defamation case against TOC editor Terry Xu.
Mr Bequelin concludes ominously by saying, “With this alarming bill, the government will be able to further police the online platforms that so many Singaporeans use. It must be withdrawn.”