Singapore legislation allows authorities to delete messages on messaging apps like WhatsApp. (Unsplash: Rami Al-zayat)
The Singapore government has approved a controversial bill aimed at the elimination of "false news" and misinformation, providing ample powers to the police authorities to speak online, including encrypted messaging applications.
- Singapore joins Russia and Vietnam in the introduction of a law on false news
- The bill involves the maximum penalties of a decade in prison and a fine of $ 1 million
- The government insists that Singapore remains a "very open country"
Critics argue that the legislation, known as "Protection against false online data" and "Manipulation Bill", is the largest legislation of its kind in the world and threatens to further restrict media and speech freedom in the southern city-state East Asia.
The bill, which provides for maximum sentences of 10 years of imprisonment and a fine of $ SG1 million ($ 1,050,500), will enter into force in the coming weeks.
David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression, wrote to the Singapore government at the end of April to raise concerns that the law "would serve as a basis to dissuade the fully legitimate discourse, particularly the public debate , criticism of government policy and political dissent ".
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The imposing majority of the members of the parliament of Singapore voted for the bill, which exceeded 72-9 May 8th.
The Opposition Workers Party claimed that the government had a "hidden agenda" to suppress ordinary citizens.
The law requires platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter – which have their Asian headquarters in Singapore – to remove posts deemed to contain false statements by the authorities.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong states that Singapore is a "very open country". (AP: Vincent Thian)
More controversial, the law applies not only to online forums but also to private messages sent via encrypted messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and Telegram. It is not yet clear how this aspect of the law would be applied.
Singapore-based journalist Kirsten Han told ABC that the government seemed "reluctant to even consider amendments".
The government defended the bill, stating that it is necessary and even useful for freedom of speech.
Interior Minister Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam called for criminal sanctions to apply only in the event of intentional sharing of false information.
"Innocent sharing will not attract criminal responsibility," the national newspaper The Straits Times said.
"We are a very open country … (but) we must establish an appropriate boundary that allows us to protect freedom of speech and allow people to exchange information, thoughts and opinions in a meaningful way," said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on local television. an interview at the end of April.
The Straits Times approved the bill in an editorial that the law "provides a prohibitive environment for keeping society safe from offenders".
"The punitive force of the law should still apply to those who practice intentional deception, using lies to undermine trust in social structures and institutions," he added.
Press freedom and human rights groups have widely condemned the false news.
The Southeast Asian Press Alliance stated in a statement that there was a chance that the law was "arbitrarily applied and abused by those who were charged with implementing it".
Singapore was ranked 151st out of 180 countries in the 2019 world press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), below Russia.
"In its current form, this Orwellian law establishes no less than a ministry of truth that would be free to silence independent voices and impose the ruling party line," said Daniel Bastard, the chief of the RSF Asia-Pacific desk.
"We condemn this bill in the strongest possible terms because, both in form and in substance, it places unacceptable obstacles to the free flow of journalistically verified information".
Jeff Paine, CEO of Asia Internet Coalition, said in a statement that "the legislation gives the Singapore government full discretion over what is considered true or false".
It is not yet clear how Singapore will drop the messages on WhatsApp and Telegram. (Reuters: Kevin Lam)
"Like the broader legislation of this kind to date, this level of overcoming poses significant risks for freedom of expression and speech and could have serious consequences both in Singapore and in the rest of the world," he said.
The new bill applies to all online content, which means that Australians or other foreign journalists who reported on Singapore could theoretically be commissioned to distribute "false news".
But Han said the locals are more at risk, claiming that the law "is yet another tool that can be used against critics and activists and that it can perpetuate the culture of self-censorship that already exists in Singapore."
Nearby Malaysia had implemented a similar law under former disgraced Prime Minister Najib Razak, which was later repealed in August 2018 under his successor, Mahathir Mohamad.
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