Singapore’s answer to fake news: correction and takedown orders, fines and jail

AAJA Asia
AAJA Asia
Sep 13, 2019 · 4 min read

BY TOM BENNER

Singapore passed a far-reaching new law on May 9 to combat the problem of online falsehoods.

Singaporean lawmakers voted to grant government ministers broad powers such as the ability to demand corrections, order the removal of content, or block websites deemed to be propagating falsehoods contrary to the public interest. Penalties for not complying with orders include steep fines and jail time.

While Germany has passed a law allowing for takedown orders on social media sites, that law is specifically focused on hate speech.

Singapore’s law goes further, allowing government ministers to singlehandedly decide if an online post is factually incorrect and contrary to the public interest.

Journalists, academics, and global tech companies have grave concerns about the possible impact on free speech and abuse of power.

“Singapore’s law is the most broadly scoped due to very broad definitions and criteria like ‘public interest,’ with both a correction order and take down order and severe penalties for non-compliance. Singapore’s is unique as well because any minister can issue the directive (corrective or take down) without judicial oversight. (An) appeal can be made after the fact but the order will remain in place during appeal process,” said a spokesperson for the Asia Internet Coalition, an industry association whose members include Facebook, Google and Twitter.

Those tech giants and others have been under fire all over the world for not doing enough to police their platforms for misinformation. Some worry the Singapore legislation may be copied by other countries.

Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director, Human Rights Watch, said: “Singapore’s leaders have crafted a law that will have a chilling affect on internet freedom throughout Southeast Asia, and likely start a new set of information wars as they try to impose their narrow version of ‘truth’ on the wider world.”

Penalties for not obeying a correction or takedown order include up to 10 years’ jail time and SGD$1 million (USD $735,080) in fines.

An individual or a web portal ordered to correct or remove an item could apply to the ministers to challenge an order, and if denied, could turn to a court as the final arbiter. Critics worry the appeal process would be slow, intimidating, and costly.

Proponents say these fears are overblown. While the bill targets factually incorrect statements, it does not apply, they claim, to opinions, criticisms, satire or parody. Supporters of the bill say the country’s small size makes it especially easy for online rumours to exacerbate existing tensions in the multi-religious, multi-racial society.

But government involvement in determining what’s true and what’s false has many saying the bill will set a dangerous precedent.

Critics of the bill say the legislation will give government officials unprecedented powers and will stifle free speech in an era when around the world, populist leaders label the media as the enemy of the people. Singapore, whose government regulates its large local media outlets, has a relatively low press freedom ranking of 151st in the world, below countries including Russia and Myanmar.

“In the wrong hands, legislation such as the one under discussion, can be misused for selfish gain. No government or minister — good or bad — should be allowed to wield such broad powers. The bill should be withdrawn pending a genuine and robust discussion on how best to combat ‘fake news’ ”, a letter signed by journalists warned..

The bill empowers government ministers to act to protect national security, public health, public finance, public safety and tranquillity in the friendly relations between Singapore and other countries, and the weakening of public confidence in the government.

That last provision worries Singaporean journalist P N Balji, who wrote: “The proposed law allows any minister, without any oversight and check, to act against those whom they believe are guilty of contravening the law. This is unprecedented in modern Singapore’s legal history. Let us not forget that we are talking about human beings, not some supreme saints, and they are more than capable of erring”.

For example, could the “public interest” be used as an excuse to issue a correction or takedown order for something that casts the government in a negative light? Would something that is critical of a current administration qualify as detrimental to public confidence in government?

During a marathon two-day debate in parliament, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam took issue with claims the law will have a “chilling effect” on free speech, and said the new measures will affect “falsehood, bots, trolls and fake accounts.” 🗨️

Tom Benner is a freelance journalist based in Singapore and editor of N3Magazine.

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