by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Merlion444/WikiCommons/CC

CONCERNS HAVE been raised in Singapore regarding a recently passed fake news bill that journalists, members of civil society warn, and free speech advocates could be used by the government to stifle dissent. The bill was passed earlier this month, on May 8th.

Namely, the new law, entitled the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (POFMA), allows any minister to demand that online platforms remove or change content deemed to be against the “public interest”, as well as to demand the censoring of social media platforms. Ministers will be allowed to demand this without any judicial review, meaning that it becomes very easy for the law to be abused on the basis of the personal whims of government ministers. At the same time, ministers also have the power to exempt those who they want from the law.

Home and law minister K. Shanmugam. Photo credit: Tasnim News Agency/CC

Though it will be possible to appeal against the removal or editing of online content, it is likely that any appeals process will be difficult and require a significant expenditure of resources that few can afford. Likewise, the appeals process would go primarily through the minister who demanded the removal to begin with and not through any independent regulatory body, making appeals unlikely to succeed. And even if an appeals process were successful, media outlets would first be made to issue notices regarding their news being labeled fake news.

Penalties for violating the law are steep, including imprisonment, or being fined up to one million Singaporean dollars. Government officials such as prime minister Lee Hsien Loong and home and law minister K. Shanmugam have attempted to justify the law in line with measures taken to counter fake news by other democracies, as well as suggested the law will, in fact, limit government powers rather than expand them.

However, the People Action Party, which has ruled Singapore continuously for decades, has long used legal threats as a means of silencing dissent. The POFMA would merely be the latest example in the age of the Internet and social media, the Singaporean government seemingly having the aim of silencing online critics of its policies and independent media outlets. For example, the Singaporean government currently is pursuing legal charges against The Online Citizen, Singapore’s oldest independent online media outlet, on the basis of fake news charges.

International NGOs such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Jurists’ Organization, Reporters without Borders, and others have been critical of the law, which was voted in by 71 members of Singapore’s 101-seat legislature. Tech companies such as Google and Apple also expressed concern about the passage of the law and it’s potential effects on the Internet in Singapore, as has Facebook, although Facebook is sometimes thought to be taking a more conciliatory stance toward the Singaporean government at present.

Front page of The Online Citizen. Photo credit: The Online Citizen

Indeed, though fake news may be a growing problem worldwide, Singaporean experts on fake news have been among those to point out that the design of the bill will probably not address the issue of fake news in Singapore. Sources of fake news or disinformation in Singapore are, in many cases, not from Singapore to begin with but are foreign media outlets, some prominent sources of fake news actually including Taiwanese media outlets such as CtiNews. Instead, the bill is highly likely to worsen the news environment in Singapore, with ministers and other government actors able to control what the news reports on in Singapore.

To this extent, POFMA is likely to worsen issues of lacking transparency from the Singaporean government, in allowing the Singaporean government to avoid questioning from the media regarding issues ranging from university fees, healthcare, retirement funds, or even basic demographic facts about Singaporean society, such as median pension payouts, or the levels of poverty in Singaporean society.

The Singaporean government has attempted to justify the need for the bill by citing rising global fears about fake news, the dangers of disinformation efforts from foreign actors, such as the Malaysian government, or incidents in Singapore such as misleading reports that the building oof a roof caved in. However, the Singaporean government has generally been unable to provide more substantive reasons as to why such a bill is necessary. A vaguely-defined notion of “public interest” will be the basis upon which accusations of fake news are made, with the Singaporean government accusing journalists and civil society actors who have raised criticisms of the new bill of themselves being purveyors of fake news.

At the same time, it is also very likely that in the age of politicians communicating with voters through social media, the Singapore government will continue to cultivate media personalities and platforms amenable to it, providing them special access while stifling the ability of independent media outlets to continue their operations. Whether in Singapore or elsewhere, authoritarian governments have taken to using global concerns regarding the issue of fake news in order to silence criticisms, while also serving as disseminators of fake news themselves. In particular, political dissent on social media is enough of a sensitive issue in Singapore that individuals have de facto been exiled from Singapore because of posts on social media.

Photo credit: WikiCommons/CC

For other countries and societies grappling with problems caused by fake news and media disinformation, such as Taiwan, Singapore proves a negative example of when a government uses the issue of fake news to silence independent reporting and political criticism. Such issues are far from alien to Taiwan, given the restrictions on information which existed during the period of KMT authoritarianism, and the release of misinformation by KMT administrations when they are in power.

As Taiwan ponders how to counter attempts by China to influence its elections through social media and the Internet as a means of defending hard-won democratic freedoms from the threat of Chinese political control, Taiwanese civil society has been among those most concerned with the dangers posed by fake news. Yet it bears in mind as to when efforts to combat fake news become in themselves a threat to democracy.

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