Singapore’s foreign interference bill – legal monstrosity with totalitarian leanings
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is appalled by Singapore’s proposed Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, otherwise known as FICA. Under the guise of defending national sovereignty, it will enable the government to designate any independent media outlet as a foreign agent and to censor its content, RSF says.
Update - 6 October 2021
Singapore’s parliament passed this law by a huge majority at the end of a marathon session on the night of 4 October – just three weeks after it was submitted. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the rushed debate and hasty vote on a draft law that was the subject of fierce criticism by the parliamentary opposition and civil society.
Unveiled on 13 September, the government’s FICA bill could be passed by Singapore’s government-dominated parliament as soon as early October without significant changes. It contains 249 pages of obscure legal jargon, in which the devil is in the details.
Behind specious wording and using national sovereignty as a cover, this bill gives the government a blank check to slap a “foreign agent” label on any media outlet it dislikes and to impose extremely harsh sentences simply for the intent to publish content. And, above all, it would allow the government to introduce a system of prior censorship without saying so openly.
“What with its extremely vague definitions, pervasive arbitrary approach and lack of independent legal recourse for those who are given orders by the government, the FICA bill is an abomination both from a purely legal viewpoint and as regards respect for fundamental rights,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“Above all, under the pretext of preventing possible foreign influence on the state, this bill institutionalises the persecution of any domestic entity that does not toe the line set by the government and ruling party, starting with independent media outlets. As it stands, this utterly Kafkaesque project contains within it the seeds of the worst totalitarian leanings.”
Hue and cry over “foreign agents”
A distinguishing feature of the FICA’s preliminary definitions is the law’s very vaguely defined applicability. Sections 4 and 5 say it applies to any information activity or electronic communication carried out by a Singaporean entity “on behalf of a foreign principal.”
This “foreign principal” can obviously be a government, but it can also be an entity or an individual, even one residing in Singapore. And the type of relationship between the “foreign principal” and any Singaporean partner is of little concern. It can be shares in a company, a commercial contract or even an informal collaboration provided free of charge. All these extremely vague concepts give the government a great deal of leeway.
Section 7 also allows the government to justify action as being “in the public interest” if activities could result in “a diminution of public confidence” in the government or is “directed towards a political end.” And what is a “political end”? Anything liable to “influence the legislative process” or” influence public opinion” on what is “a matter of public controversy” or “political debate.”
Meanwhile, Section 24 allows the Minister to declare an online platform a “proscribed online location”. Section 39 criminalises the soliciting of revenue or funding for such proscribed locations, whether through selling ads and subscriptions or seeking donations, while Sections 40 and 41 outlaw offering such platforms support or advertising dealings. In other words, media outlets or websites could be denied any means of raising money, if the Minister for Home Affairs so much as suspects that there is foreign involvement. This is an insidious way of forcing independent media outlets and journalists to shut down their operations.
Any violation or intention to publish information online without declaring the involvement of foreigners will be punishable by up to 14 years in prison and a fine of 100,000 Singaporean dollars (63,000 euros) for an individual or a fine of 1 million Singaporean dollars for an entity, such as a news site.
This is one of the FICA’s many traps. Simply “preparing or planning” to publish forbidden content is also punishable by imprisonment, as made clear in section 19. This nuance says everything about a bill that clearly aims to intimidate the handful of independent media outlets and bloggers still trying to inform their fellow citizens, and to deter them from continuing.
This is also clear in sections 20, 21 and 22, which give the Ministry of Home Affairs the right to “prevent” the publication of any judgmental content by blocking the content itself, or by blocking any Internet address, app or social media.
The government will also be able to restrict access to certain content on platforms and even to force a platform to post content prepared by the government. The government will be able to exercise these prior censorship powers, which are totally arbitrary in nature, without reference to a judge and without any possibility of independent judicial recourse.
Judge and party
What FICA sections 92 to 101 say about appealing against decisions by the Ministry of Home Affairs is puzzling, to say the least. It says appeals should initially be submitted to the ministry itself, which thereby becomes judge and party in the same case. Plaintiffs dissatisfied with the ministry’s response can then appeal to a special court that has yet to be created and regulated – a task that is assigned to none other than the Ministry of Home Affairs.
The only possibility of effective legal appeal to an actual court is limited to alleged procedural violations. So, justice may be available on matters of form, but it is the government that will have the last word on matters of substance whenever a media outlet or blogger is subjected to prior censorship.
It is clearly independent media outlets that the FICA is targeting on national sovereignty grounds. Foremost among these is The Online Citizen (TOC), one of the few Singaporean news sites providing the city state’s citizens with news not written by the government. As RSF reported last week, the site has been inaccessible since 16 September because its licence was suspended on the grounds of alleged “repeated failures” to provide full information about its sources of funding.
The agency that ordered its suspension claimed that its funding model could serve as “an avenue for foreign influence” although in reality the site is funded by readers who are subscribers, who pay for being able to read its stories and to see other online content. TOC editor Terry Xu drew attention to this nuance in the site’s defence, but it would no longer serve as a defence argument once the FICA is adopted.
Another of the government’s presumed targets is the New Naratif website, which covers all of Southeast Asia and whose editorial interest is therefore not limited to Singapore. Shortly after the FICA was submitted to parliament, New Naratif managing director Thum Ping Tjin, who is a Singaporean citizen, received “stern warnings” from the government about “illegal election activity”.
The police’s press statement made a point of noting that New Naratif has received foreign funding and has non-Singaporean members. As RSF showed in October of last year, the website and its director were targeted simply for covering the campaign preceding the July 2020 general election.
Ranked 160th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Singapore has been coloured black on the RSF press freedom map since 2020 as the situation is now classified as “very bad,” in part because of the draconian anti-fake news law adopted in 2019.