Singapore Enacts New Law to Combat Fake News Online Although the government touts it as positive, free-speech groups have their concerns
As of October 1st, a new law regarding the government’s power to regulate the spread of information online has gone into effect in Singapore. Passed in May, the Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act gives the government the power to force online platforms to remove or add edits to information that they judge to be false, as well as requiring companies to block accounts that are spreading false information. A company’s failure to comply with this new law can lead to a fine of up to 1 million Singapore Dollars ($722,000 USD). Individuals who do not comply can be fined up to $60,000 or serve up to ten years in prison.
While the law is presented as a way to allow the government to remove “deliberate falsehoods” from the internet, it is broad enough to give government ministers the power to force individuals or companies to remove information they don’t like. There is no organized body or committee dedicated to judging whether something is fake news, but if someone charged under the new law wishes to challenge the decision made, they can, as long as they pay a $200 dollar fee, along with the legal fees needed to pay for a court challenge. With Singapore’s next parliamentary election coming up in March of next year, this law could give the ruling party the ability to influence what information is spread during election time.
This new law places more restrictions on a city-state that is already ranked poorly for press freedom. The organization Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 151st out of 180 other countries in their 2019 Press Freedom Index. This ranking is particularly bad for a democratic state, and is one of the worst in Southeast Asia, with only Brunei, Laos, and Vietnam ranked worse. Lawsuits against journalists and independent media agencies as well as threatening emails sent by the authorities have led to a rise in self-censorship among journalists. This habit of self-censorship is likely to continue under the new law as journalists choose to refrain from publishing news or ideas that the government could deem false.
Singapore’s ruling party, the People’s Action Party, defended the merits of the bill claiming that it could be used to stop the spread of disinformation aimed at causing divisions among ethnic or religious lines. As a small city-state with many different ethnic and religious groups making up its population of roughly 5.8 million, tensions or conflict between ethnic groups could be a serious issue.
Singapore is not the first in the region to pass a controversial law regarding freedom of press. Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam all have their own laws regarding what can be said or printed publicly or online.
Outside of the region, Singapore and other Southeast Asian nations are not the only ones enforcing laws to try and combat disinformation. Canada, Chile, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Kenya, Mexico, Rwanda, South Korea, Sri Lanka, and many other nations have all introduced and passed laws to combat the spread of disinformation in recent years. While the intention is ostensibly to curb an increasing issue, these laws give governments the leeway to censor or edit any information they choose, which may lead to a global trend of increased censorship, all under the guise of ending fake news.