The problem of online fake news is a real one, but the Singaporean government’s response, in the form of the Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill that was presented to parliament on 1 April, is completely inappropriate.
By giving the government’s members an almost entirely free hand to control content circulating online, this proposed anti-fake news law would in reality be a horrifying tool for censoring and intimidating online media outlets and Internet users.
“It is not up to the government to arbitrarily determine what is and is not true,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “In its current form, this Orwellian law establishes nothing less than a ‘ministry of truth’ that would be free to silence independent voices and impose the ruling party’s line. We condemn this bill in the strongest possible terms because, in both form and substance, it poses unacceptable obstacles to the free flow of journalistically verified information.”
The bill combines loose wording with catch-all formulations that extend the range of applicability of the penalties to absolutely all content circulating online. Right from the start, in the preliminary section on definitions, article 2 says: “a statement is false when it is false or misleading.”
On the basis of this tautology, the bill grants every government minister the right to issue a directive censoring, correcting or blocking access to online content that threatens what the minister considers to be “in the public interest” without satisfactorily explaining this concept (article 4). Similarly articles 4, 7, 8 and 9 allow ministers to take measures against any entity in order to “prevent a diminution of public confidence in [...] the government [or] an organ of state.”
Government’s discretionary power
The bill’s extremely vague formulations provide government ministers with an almost absolute power of interpretation. In particular, the procedure for challenging a minister’s decision to censor online content borders on the absurd. As a first step, a request can be sent to the minister’s office asking the minister to reconsider, although political practice suggests that chances of ministers disowning their own decisions are low.
As a second step, an appeal against a ministerial directive can be made to the high court under article 35. But few independent news websites and even fewer citizen-journalists will have the time, energy and resources to prepare and submit an appeal which, on the basis of previous court decisions, will have very little chance of prospering. And, even if the court does finally rule in favour of the appeal, the minister’s censorship order remains in effect until the court’s decision.
Government ministers are given even more discretionary powers in article 61, which says: “the minister may, by order in the Gazette, exempt any person or class of person from any provision of this act.” In other words, the government can allow any pro-government entity to disseminate fake news with complete impunity.
News sites or citizen-journalists who fail to comply with a censorship order are exposed to penalties that are, to say the least, dissuasive: up to a year in prison and 20,000 Singaporean dollars (13,000 euros) for an individual and 500,000 Singaporean dollars (330,000 euros) for a website.
Internet access providers can be fined up to 20,000 Singaporean dollars a day until they comply with a ministerial directive to remove content or “correct” it in line with the government’s version.
“Internet intermediaries,” meaning online platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, face a similar penalty under article 34. In other words, everything possible is done to encourage intermediaries to exercise prior censorship and encourage self-censorship on the part of those who might otherwise disseminate content at variance with the government line.
Biased legislative process
The intention to draft an anti-fake news law was announced in June 2017 by law and home affairs minister K. Shanmugam, who called it “a no-brainer.” A special committee consisting of government ministers and parliamentarians was set up in March 2018 to hear representatives from the media and new technology sectors and take account of their recommendations.
But the report that the committee handed to the government last September concealed many of the comments made by the persons who had appeared before it. And the deep reserves expressed by tech giant representatives were carefully excluded.
Among those who appeared before the commission was freelance journalist Kirsten Han. She participated in a stormy hearing together with Terry Xu, the editor of The Online Citizen news website, who has been harassed by the police. Afterwards, she said she was “horrified” to see her views “so drastically misrepresented” in an official summary of the hearing.
The blogger Han Hui Hui told RSF that, after initially receiving an invitation to appear before the committee, she was led up the garden path by parliamentary officials. “They regularly changed the date and time of my hearing, and then finally cancelled it,” she said. Although the hearings were supposed to be public, she was arbitrarily expelled from the room where they were taking place on 29 March and was held for several hours.
RSF was itself invited to appear before the committee, but declined on the grounds that it preferred to get a better idea of what was being proposed and then give its recommendations. Although private, the exchange of emails on this subject were published in the pro-government Singaporean media.
This semblance of legislative process suggests that the adoption of a draconian law on the pretext of combatting fake news was planned well in advance. Last December, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong surprised everyone by suddenly announcing that early elections could be held before the end of 2019.
Given that 2018 was marked by a corruption scandal and a family dispute over his father’s will, one can understand the prime minister’s interest in suppressing all unwanted reporting during the election campaign.
In this regard, one of the bill’s provisions seems made to measure. As ministers cannot exercise their functions in the usual manner during an election period because parliament has been dissolved, article 52 says that the minister’s powers can be exercised by an “alternate authority appointed by the (...) minister.” In other words, ministers can appoint close aides to issue the censorship orders.
RSF has long been concerned about the possibility that governments could adopt laws that use combatting fake news as a pretext for imposing censorship. In response, RSF launched an innovative self-regulatory initiative a year ago called the Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI), which aims to promote trustworthy journalism by giving concrete advantages to media outlets that adhere to journalistic standards.
Singapore is ranked 151st out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.