Singapore goes on global offensive to defend ‘fake news’ law

Singapore’s government has said the new law is not aimed at stifling free speech and is enforced independently of the election cycle. — AP

Singaporean diplomats are taking the lead in defending a two-month-old fake news law, challenging international media outlets and free-speech advocates it says are publishing misleading claims on the contentious legislation.

Since the law was enacted in October, authorities in the South-East Asian city-state have invoked it four times against critics and once against Facebook Inc, which was required to attach a government-issued "correction” to content deemed to contain falsehoods. Government officials have also countered critical media coverage of the law, known as the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act.

Foo Chi Hsia, Singapore’s High Commissioner to the UK, stated the Economist had misrepresented the law, writing in a Dec 21 letter to the editor that it "should be looked at in the same context as our belief in the right of reply, which in our view enhances rather than reduces the quality of public discourse."

"Readers can see both and decide for themselves which is the truth,” she wrote. "How does twinning factual replies to falsehoods limit free speech?”

Earlier in December, Singapore’s ambassador to the US, Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, disputed a Washington Post story that cited critics saying the law could have a "chilling effect on online free expression.” In the letter, obtained by Bloomberg, he also criticised Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, who was quoted as an expert in the story. Days later, Bernard Toh, director of the Ministry of Communications and Information’s information policy division, accused Fred Ryan, the newspaper’s publisher, of "perpetuating false allegations, ” local media reported.

Free speech

The battle for public opinion comes as social-media companies raise concerns the law could impact their businesses. Opposition Singaporean politicians are also worried the law will suppress dissent ahead of elections that must be held by April 2021. They expect the ruling People’s Action Party, which has governed Singapore since independence in 1965, to win despite a slowing economy.

Singapore’s government has said the new law is not aimed at stifling free speech and is enforced independently of the election cycle. "This is equally true with laws regulating the exercise of the rights of free speech and assembly, and with any other law,” the Ministry of Law wrote in an email, noting that content impacted by the law remains intact alongside the ordered correction, which links to a full justification. "They can read both and decide for themselves on the truth. This encourages greater transparency,” the email said.

Some provisions in the law are unique to Singapore, which has increased risks for global tech companies. In addition to requiring companies to post "corrections” to user posts, the law may also require them to ensure the correction is seen by every user in Singapore who has read the offending post. Penalties for failing to comply can be as high as SGD$1mil (RM3mil) per post and a further SGD$100,000 (RM300,000) per day for non-compliance following a conviction.

In one case last month, Minister of Home Affairs K Shanmugam instructed a "correction direction” to be issued to Sydney-based Singaporean Alex Tan Zhi Xiang for posting alleged falsehoods against the ruling party to the Facebook page of his political blog "States Times Review.” Even though he complied, the government commenced investigation proceedings against Tan within 24 hours and instructed Facebook to post a correction. The following day, the company complied with the instruction.

"As it is early days of the law coming into effect, we hope the Singapore government’s assurances that it will not impact free expression will lead to a measured and transparent approach to implementation,” a Facebook spokesperson said by email.

Critics say the recent cases are just the latest in a string of attacks on dissent. Singapore’s crackdown on critical voices has "intensified” in the past year, according to a report published last month by US-based Freedom House, which cited government moves to temporarily block two local outlets and the prosecution of activists and journalists.

"These examples underscore how the government is weaponising what is the genuine issue of disinformation in order to suppress information online and the rights to free expression and access to information,” said Allie Funk, a research analyst for the group’s "Freedom on the Net” programme.

Opposition fears

Singapore’s political parties have also expressed concern. In a letter leaked by the opposition Singapore Democratic Party on Dec 3, Google Inc informed party chairman Paul Tambyah the company would not be accepting political advertising regulated by the new law, citing similar decisions made in Canada and Taiwan.

"This was not an easy decision to make as Google is committed to delivering useful and relevant election-related information to users around the world,” Ted Osius, Google’s vice president for government affairs and public policy in Asia Pacific, wrote in the letter, which was verified by Bloomberg.

Tambyah questioned the decision in an emailed reply, calling the ban a threat to democracy and saying "evil is often perpetrated by people and organisations who, wittingly or otherwise, ban freedom of speech.”

Facebook has also introduced tighter regulations for political advertisements in Singapore that require identity and location disclosures. Twitter Inc has also indicated it is ready to comply and has set up a dedicated team to review government requests.

"We remain concerned about the potential impacts of this regulation on our service, and the people and institutions that use Twitter,” a Twitter spokesman wrote in an email, urging the government to enforce the law judiciously.

Singapore’s government is also considering a separate bill targeting foreign interference that would give authorities "powers to make targeted, surgical interventions” to investigate hostile information campaigns from abroad, Law Minister K Shanmugam said during a speech in September.

"There are always ‘reasons’ to take more and more power and this is just another,” said Brad Bowyer, a member of the opposition party Progress Singapore, who himself was the target of the law’s first correction direction. "It is a dark and dangerous path they are on.” – Bloomberg

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