By: John Berthelsen

The government of Singapore, which has some of the most stringent controls on freedom of the press outside of North Korea, is holding an eight-day parliamentary committee hearing into “deliberate online falsehoods,” or fake news.

The hearing, which commenced on March 14 and is scheduled to end on March 29, is said to be “looking at ways Singapore can thwart deliberate online falsehoods.”  Officials say the government intends to formulate new legislation in the coming weeks after the hearings are completed.

And, while no law has been suggested yet, the prospect has alarmed major multinational technology companies including Apple, Facebook and Google. The Asia Internet Coalition, which also includes Linked-In, Expedia, Yahoo and others, has urged the government to allow the industry to police itself in coordination with local law enforcement without resorting to new legislation. That is unlikely.

 It has alarmed rights activists. Shawn Crispin, a Southeast Asia media representative for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said the organization is aware of the hearings but will reserve comment until the shape of legislation is known.

Han Hui Hui, a young protester, said in an email that the proposed new law “violates Singapore’s constitution and will increase the level of self-censorship.” However, Han said, “Despite the Singapore government being dubiously democratic right now, the law will ultimately be passed and it will have a devastating ripple effect as other countries in ASEAN will follow suit. Similar laws will spread across Southeast Asia, Asia and around the world as many governments look up to Singapore in implementing new laws to violate our rights to freedom of expression as well as freedom of speech.”

Han is probably right. When the Singapore government proposes a hearing for prospective legislation, it is all but certain to pass. No matter who says what over the next several days of hearings, it is certain that a new law will be promulgated. Last June, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam told a form on news credibility that legislation would be introduced, and that the government would “find ways in which it is dealt with and the people who spread such fake news are also dealt with.”

Certainly, the dissemination of deliberate online falsehoods has metastasized into an enormous problem across the globe and made international headlines, one that could well have resulted in the election, in November 2016, of President Donald Trump as Russian trolls poured millions of dollars in resources into the attempt to discredit the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, although just how much effect they actually had is unclear, according to US authorities who are conducting an extensive investigation into the matter.

According to a public statement, the Select Committee’s hearings, by the time they are concluded, will host a record 79 individuals and organizations including NGOs, tech companies, telecommunications companies, local and foreign experts and others. The committee has also received record 164 written representations.

Singapore already regularly employs stringent laws covering libel, contempt of court, issues considered a threat to national security and preventing the incitement of racial and religious discord, and has used them frequently, often deploying them to combat perceived insults to the government and especially to the family of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Libel and contempt laws have been used against a blue-ribbon list of international publications including the Wall Street Journal, the International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times, Time Magazine, the defunct AsiaWeek and Far Eastern Economic Review and many others. 

The government is already protected by a stringent 2013 law that requires online news sites to put up a performance bond of S$50,000 and to submit to government censorship. Although Singapore’s Media Development Authority said the law “is not intended to clamp down on internet freedom,” adding that the regulations will only apply to news sites that meet the content and reach criteria, both Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists objected to its provisions.

Any blog that reaches more than 50,000 unique visitors in a month and prints just one article of Singapore news within a week is liable to come under the regulation and to be forced to withdraw the story within 24 hours or be faced with forfeiting the bond although the bigger problem, for most bloggers, is coming up with the money in the first place.

Among relatively tame bloggers to have been prosecuted are the former editor and owner of a news site called The Real Singapore, or TRS, who were jailed for eight and 10 months respectively for reports that were deemed to have embarrassed Lee and the People’s Action Party government. They also faced more than 200 charges of copyright infringement by Singapore Press Holdings, which publishes the Straits Times.  They have since given up all newsgathering and are running a ramen site.

Another was blogger Ray Angering, who questioned funding for the country’s Central Provident Fund and was found guilty of defamation and ordered to pay damages of S$150,000.  A third was Amos Lee, who delivered up a profanity-laced blog and denied the existence of God, only to be arrested and threatened with detention in a mental institution.  He left Singapore and applied for political asylum in the United States.

The hearings are being held at the Public Hearing Room at Parliament House. The entrance is located in Parliament Place. The public is warned that inappropriately dressed visitors may be refused entry. That includes people wearing singlets, shorts, slippers or sandals, or wearing clothing with inappropriate words, slogans or symbols, such as those bearing political party affiliations.