Fake news has been an enormous matter of controversy lately. And Singapore’s latest law has flared up the controversy once again.
In a law passed by Singapore on May 8th, the country gives sweeping powers to authorities who can police the online platforms and even the private chat groups of the users. The law will give the authorities the power to order the correction or removal of online content. It is said to come into force in the next few weeks.
This means that the use of apps like WhatsApp, which is extremely popular in Singapore, and Telegram would be affected in the country.
As per the new law, the government may now direct the platforms to remove what it deems to be false, or “against the public interest”, and may even ask it to post corrections. However, it is unclear how the law will police content in encrypted apps.
The government has emphasised that law – called as ‘The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation bill’ – would not be used against opinions, but only to arrest false information that could prove damaging. The bill is also said to protect citizens from fake news, but several communities say that it would pose threat to the civil liberties.
Where does the law apply?
It bans the use of fake accounts or bots to spread fake news. A fake account may invite penalties of up to S$1m (£563,000, $733,700) and a jail term of up to 10 years.
The law will ban the spread of such information that the government decides are false statements and are against the public interest. Doing so will attract a heavy fine and/or a jail-term of up to five years.
Besides individuals, the law applies to a broad range of platforms including social media and news websites.
Reactions to the bill
The government has said the country needs strict laws against the information that can incite racial and religious disharmony.
One main criticism is that the law has loosely defined the fake news and that gives ministers immense power to decide what is true or false. The International Commission of Jurists has said the bill “does not provide any real definition of false statement of fact” and it is not clear what would constitute ‘public interest’.
The law that was unveiled last month, has attracted severe criticism since. Many have said that the law threatens their freedom of expression.
Singaporean civil rights activist and editor Kirsten Han One has expressed concerns over other states following the same in ordering platforms to push out corrections.
Amnesty International has said the law allows the Singapore authorities “unchecked powers” to come down on the views expressed online and that the body “disapproves” such power.
Google, Facebook and Twitter said in separate statements that they remain committed to working with the Singapore government to tackle the spread of misinformation.
Leaders of Singapore’s sole opposition in parliament have denounced it. But the bill was passed due to the overwhelming dominance of the ruling party.
Fake news and the world
Singapore is the fourth country after Russia, France, and Germany to have passed significant law against fake news or hate speech.
The country is ranked 151 out of 180 countries in this year’s World Press Freedom Index. The country ranked first to exercise press freedom is Norway. India holds the 140th spot on the index.