Singapore: Amend the “Fake News” Bill


Singapore: Amend the “Fake News” Bill

JAKARTA – Singapore must significantly amend a “fake news” bill being debated in parliament this week that threatens to curb free speech and give authorities sweeping powers to punish critics, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said.

The Singapore parliament is expected to hold second reading of the Protection against Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill – often referred to as the “fake news” bill – this week between 6 and 8 May. While the bill is meant to combat online disinformation to protect the “public interest” from “false statements”, it contains concerning provisions that grant the government far-reaching powers.

“The Protection against Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill would be a grave threat to freedom of expression in Singapore if it is passed in its current form. While states have a right and duty to guard against false content online, the vague language in this bill means it is easily open to abuse,” said Charles Santiago, Board Chair of APHR and an MP in Malaysia.

“MPs in Singapore must use the second reading of the bill this week to push for significant changes that bring it in line with international human rights standards.”

Human rights groups – including in a thorough legal analysis by the International Commission of Jurists – have outlined several disturbing provisions in the proposed law.

Several terms in the bill – such as “false statement of fact”, “public interest” and “public tranquility” – are vaguely and broadly defined, leaving a wide scope of interpretation by authorities. As there is no clarity in the bill on what kinds of information or statements would be targeted, ministers are the sole arbiters of whether statements are in the “public interest”.

Authorities would have sweeping powers which are not subject to judicial review, allowing ministers to issue a correction to online content, or in more serious cases, take the content down altogether. Severe and disproportionate penalties could be imposed on a wide range of potential victims, including internet service providers, internet and digital advertising intermediaries.

In Southeast Asia, several other countries are already relying on draconian legislation to combat the spread of “disinformation”. Thailand uses the Computer Crimes Act to prosecute those spreading false information, and Vietnam introduced a new cybersecurity law at the beginning of this year. Malaysia also passed its “Anti-Fake News” law in 2018, although it is currently in the process of being repealed as it also contained several worrying provisions from a human rights perspective.

Three Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs, who are directly appointed by the President for their public service and do not represent constituencies) – including APHR Member Anthea Ong – have raised concerns about the bill in a joint statement. The NMPs said that while they  “agree with the legislative intent of the Bill” they are alarmed that it grants the government “far-reaching powers over online communication”. They also urged the creation of an independent monitoring council over “online falsehoods”.

APHR urges the Singapore parliament to carefully consider the dangers that this bill would pose and ensure that the bill is not passed in its current state.

“The proposed ‘fake news’ bill flies in the face of international standards on freedom of expression. It is difficult to see how this is not just another attempt by the authorities to silence debate online. This bill would simply have the effect of discouraging people from voicing their views in fear of violating the law and facing heavy penalties,” said Charles Santiago.

“There is still time to appropriately revise this bill to comply with international law and ensure that Singapore is a country in which freedom of expression online is respected.”

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ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) was founded in June 2013 with the objective of promoting democracy and human rights across Southeast Asia. Our founding members include many of the region's most progressive Members of Parliament (MPs), with a proven track record of human rights advocacy work.

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