By: John Berthelsen

In a decade that has produced an explosion of “fake news” laws in countries across the globe, the Singapore government’s announcement that parliament would debate its version has stirred more concern than most among international journalism protection NGOs.

That is because when Singapore says the government will debate a measure, its passage is almost assured, and largely as the government wants it passed. And, given Singapore’s decades-long donnybrook with its domestic press, social media, bloggers and international outlets, the watchdogs say it is cause for alarm.

But Singapore is hardly alone. As US President Donald Trump has accused a long list of professional journalism organizations of printing or broadcasting “fake news,” his term has spread across the planet, a convenient term with which to flog the journalism profession, usually when it seeks to describe accurately what governments and vested interests are up to.

Certainly, there is plenty of fake news out there. The 2016 Jakarta gubernatorial election was almost certainly swung by allegations that then-governor Basuki Tahajah Purnama blasphemed the Quran.  The election that brought Trump to power arguably was swung by Russian disinformation. But getting at what’s fake and what isn’t in a heated political atmosphere, or when dictatorial governments can decide what’s fake and what isn’t, is a different matter.

The Florida-based Poynter Institute, which recently published a “a Guide to Anti-misinformation Actions Across the World,” said that from Brazil to South Korea, these efforts to legislate against online misinformation “raise questions about infringing free speech guarantees and are frequently victims of uncertainty.”

The guide found 43 countries involved in efforts to combat so-called false information, ranging from the deeply sinister to the relatively benign. So far, for instance, Bangladesh has used “fake news” laws to detain dozens, according to Poynter’s list. Cambodia, which has cracked down hard on journalists, has appointed three ministries to monitor the press. Cameroon has used the laws to become a “key detainer of journalists.” Egypt leads the world in detention of journalists. In Kenya, the Committee to Protect Journalists says Nairobi’s fake news law would “criminalize free speech, with journalists and bloggers likely to be among the first victims.”

In mid-October, three journalists were jailed in Myanmar after publishing a story about misuse of public money by the Yangon regional government, which claimed the article was false. The journalists could face up to two years in prison and a fine.

In the waning days of the Barisan Nasional’s deeply corrupt administration in Malaysia, the government pushed through a fake news law that critics described as a last-minute attempt to silence bloggers and others pointing out corruption, especially about 1Malaysia Development Bhd, which was called by two recent books the world’s biggest financial scandal. The reform government that took power in May 2018 has attempted to repeal it, but has been blocked by the Barisan, now in opposition.

Citing “fake news,” Thai officials have been expanding a 2007 law that punishes anti-government criticism. In addition to focusing on statements made about the monarchy in Thailand, officials can go after journalists and bloggers who make anti-military claims. Per the law, violators could face up to 15 years in prison. Citizens ranging from rappers to political campaigners have been charged under the law.

So what about Singapore?

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which called on Singapore’s parliament to turn down the legislation, called it “a clear and present danger to online press freedom” and said it “should be dropped immediately.”

Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative, said: “Singapore’s leaders already have a deplorable record of censorship and tight control over the news media, and this vague legislation will inevitably lend itself to abuse.”

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said Singapore’s “decades-long internet crackdown has, according to free speech advocates, stifled online innovation and free expression” and pointed out that it ranks Singapore three places below Russia in its 2018 Press Freedom Index, Singapore, RSF said, “needs less, not more regulation, of its online media.”

There is little doubt that the proposed legislation, known as the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, is draconian. It allows for fines up to S$1 million (US$740,000) and prison terms up to 10 years for owners and administrators of websites that fail to comply with official requests to correct or remove content ruled as objectionable, according to news reports.

Singapore’s past actions not only against the international press but against its own citizens leave little doubt that the law, which gives government ministers the arbitrary power to determine if information is false and harming the public interest and to issue takedown notices or corrections, means business.  

The new law basically increases the penalties on media sites it has already gone after.

As Asia Sentinel reported in January, that has included a string of attacks on independent online media including The Online Citizen, The Independent Singapore, States Times Review, Singapore Herald, The Coverage, New Naratif, blogger Leong Sze Hian and seven independent journalists and bloggers who have faced various forms of legal actions by the Singapore government.

As the CPJ pointed out, under the legislation Facebook, Google, and Twitter and other tech giants would have to immediately issue corrections of false information published on their platforms and inform users when they may have been exposed to inaccuracies.

Criminal sanctions under the legislation would be imposed if information that authorities deem false was spread by “malicious actors” who “undermine society,” according to Singapore’s Law Ministry. The ministry said it would cut off a website’s “ability to profit” without shutting it down if it was determined to have published three falsehoods that were “against the public interest” over a six-month period.

A similar statute was used in the 1980s against the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review when the government, objecting to the magazine’s coverage of its politics, banned the import of the real magazine and printed it on its own presses without advertising.

The ministry did not specify how a website’s funds would be restricted, but news reports note that authorities could bar digital advertisers from serving websites deemed to violate the regulations.

Singapore Law Minister K. Shanmugam was quoted by Reuters as saying that the legislation would not hinder free speech because it “deals with false statements of facts. It doesn’t deal with opinions, it doesn’t deal with viewpoints.”

Opinions, criticisms, satire or parody are said by the government to be outside the jurisdiction of the bill. But Amos Yee, then a 15-year-old blogger who launched an obscenity-filled diatribe against the late patriarch Lee Kuan Yew, was jailed in 2016, and it’s likely, given the political temperature in Singapore, that he would be jailed again. More recently, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has gone after members of his own family for their public criticism of his decision to preserve Lee Kuan Yew’s home against the late premier’s will.

The proposed law also describes criminal sanctions for “malicious actors” who knowingly spread falsehoods in order to undermine society. That is a law that has already been used in 2016, against Yang Kaiheng, the editor of a now-defunct website called The Real Singapore and his pregnant wife and co-defender, Ai Takagi, was sentenced to 10 months in jail on March 23 despite pleading guilty on sedition charges and apologizing for the use of crowd-sourced reports of tensions between native Singaporeans and foreign workers, who make up nearly 1.5 million of the country’s population.

People who innocently forward something on Whatsapp, or share a post on Facebook, will not be criminally liable. They will instead be subject to correction or removal orders, under other parts of the Bill.  Lee Hsien Loong filed defamation charges against a prominent human rights defender, Leong Sze Hian in December after Leong merely clicked ‘Share’ on Nov. 10 on a story that sought to connect Lee to Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal on the Facebook page of a Malaysian website called The Coverage.My.  

Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran told local media: “You cannot be assured that this is going to be foolproof because social media and technology are evolving. But we are hoping that imposing these measures will have a leavening effect on these platforms.”