Minister of Law and Home Affairs, K Shanmugam at the Select Committee of Deliberate Online Falsehoods

Has anyone thought about this one way top down enforcement of so called “fake news”?

The “fake news” bill has come to pass, making offenders of this far-reaching and sweeping legislation potentially facing hefty fines and even jail time. At the time when the bill was being debated in Parliament, there were grave concerns that the bill would lead to a silencing of critics.

However in Singapore’s context, we have an overwhelming Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) dominated government and it, therefore, came as no surprise that the bill has passed and as of 2 October 2019 it has (despite concerns being raised in Parliament), become law.

In a nutshell, this law gives a minister the power to act against a piece of alleged falsehood on the Internet by ordering a takedown or asking for corrections to be put up alongside it. It also comes with fines, imprisonment or both to the perpetrators of the “offending” news.

I use the word “offending” deliberately because currently, the statute could potentially allow a Minister to deem a piece of news as “fake” as a means to silence a critic just because of how much discretion it gives the minister in this determination. While I am not suggesting that this has been done or will be done, therein lies a risk.

Minister for Law, K Shanmugam had tried to reassure the public by saying that aggrieved persons could always challenge the decision of the minister through the courts which could take as little as 9 days. In theory, this sounds reasonable but in practice, court procedures can be time-consuming and expensive for the layman.

With that in mind, does this avenue really negate the concerns of a minister having too much discretion? Also, given the ease at which the government can call for an election, and the decisions that are within their purview to make, is there a risk of this legislation being used to silence critics for a crucial 9 days in the lead up to an election? Will this also lead to opposition parties censoring their own campaigning tweets or Facebook posts for fear of running foul of this law? Does this best serve Singaporeans in making an informed choice during the elections? Could it be seen as a way for the government to ensure that they have every advantage (even if potentially unfair) in any election (however unwitting)?

The intention behind this “fake news” legislation is ostensibly to stop the flow of misleading information and lies. If this is the case, why does it only work one way? Only a minister can initiate the working of this law. What if it is someone within the government that unwittingly spreads “fake news”? How does the public stem this “fake news” unwittingly spread by the authorities? Has anyone thought about this one-way enforcement of so-called “fake news”?