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March 22, 2018 - Updated on April 3, 2018

Singapore’s anti-fake news bill must not tighten gag on dissent

Singaporean home affairs minister K. Shanmugam (left) has been preparing “anti-fake news” legislation since the spring of 2017. The proposed law alarms bloggers such as Han Hui Hui (centre), Roy Ngerng (right), now in self-imposed exile, and Leong Sze Hian (in the background), who are often prosecuted in connection with their blogging (photos: Brendan Smialowski - Roslan Rahman / AFP).
Doubting the sincerity of an invitation to address a parliamentary select committee that is supposedly helping Singapore’s government to draft a bill to combat “deliberate online falsehoods,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) will instead submit its recommendations when it has seen a draft.

The select committee’s second series of hearings are due to begin today and continue until the end of the month.


Comprising government ministers and ordinary parliamentarians, the committee was created in January to “look at ways Singapore can thwart deliberate online falsehoods.” A total of 79 civil society representatives have been invited to appear before the committee in connection with the drafting of the “anti-fake news” bill.


RSF is among those invited but prefers not to take a position on a draft bill that no one has seen. Inasmuch as Singapore already has some of the world’s most repressive legislation as regards the freedom to inform, RSF questions the need for a new law but is ready to offer its recommendations when it has seen an initial draft.


“Given the alarming legislative precedents in the city-state, RSF shares the deep concern that Singaporean defenders of the freedom to inform have expressed about this proposed law, which they suspect will be yet another tool for censoring dissent,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF Asia-Pacific desk.


“We take note of the declared desire of Singapore’s authorities to listen to civil society’s views. Unfortunately, with the ruling party controlling 80% of the parliament, we fear that this law will be adopted without any real debate and without any significant amendments, which means this consultation would be pointless.”


Stacks of draconian laws


Even since the government announced its intention to legislate on fake news in the spring of 2017, journalists and bloggers have been pointing out that they can already be jailed for

libel, for contempt of court, for being a “threat to national security” or for “ill-will against religious or racial groups” – vaguely worded offences that are often used to criminalize any criticism of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong or his government.


The victims include The Online Citizen, a participative community news website that has often been harassed for posting news stories that fail to toe the government line.


In 2013, RSF condemned an online content law that in practice forces news blogs to pay 50,000 Singaporean dollars (38,000 US dollars) to obtain a licence and submit to government censorship. Given the many draconian laws that already encourage self-censorship, the last thing Singapore needs is a new law imposing more restrictions on freely reported news and information.


Only yesterday, Singapore’s parliament approved an absurd bill that would prohibit photo and video reporting from the scene of a terrorist attack – a bill that RSF condemned when it was unveiled three weeks ago.


Singapore is ranked 151st out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.