After a heated debate, Singapore’s parliament has passed its controversial “anti-fake news” bill despite concerns over free speech and abuse of power.
Ministers have been given sweeping powers to demand corrections, order content removal or block websites deemed to be spreading misinformation contrary to the public interest.
The law threatens jail sentences of 10 years or fines of S$1 million (US$735,000) for non-compliance.
Critics say the law grants arbitrary powers to the government to determine what is “fake” and instead the answer is fact-checking websites, vigilance by tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Twitter and increased media literacy to help the public spot improbable content.
Google and Facebook have said the law gives the authorities too much power in deciding what qualifies as true or false.
Phil Robertson, Asia spokesman at Human Rights Watch said the legislation was a “disaster for online expression by ordinary Singaporeans and a hammer blow against the independence of many online news portals”.
“Singapore’s leaders have crafted a law that will have a chilling effect on internet freedom throughout south-east Asia, and likely start a new set of information wars as they try to impose their narrow version of ‘truth’ on the wider world,” he added.
Home affairs minister K Shanmugam told MPs the law should not be feared. “Free speech should not be affected by this bill. We are talking here about falsehoods. We are talking about bots … trolls … fake accounts and so on,” he said.
“The working of a democratic society depends on the members of that society being informed and not misinformed.”
The legislation passed with 72 MPs voting in favour and all nine opposition members voting against it.
Singapore is ranked 151st out of 180 countries – below Russia and Myanmar – in the World Press Freedom Index of the NGO Reporters Without Borders.
Singapore says it is vulnerable to fake news because of its position as a global financial hub, its mixed ethnic and religious population and extensive internet access.
A majority of Singaporeans believe fake news does not have much influence on their views and opinions, according to a distinctly unsurprising poll commissioned by Yahoo.
Consultancy Blackbox Research said 889 Singaporeans were asked how much of an influence online falsehoods and fake news had on their views.
About 40 per cent answered either “a lot” or “some”.
The results are hardly surprising as few people regard themselves as being easily fooled.
High-tech Singapore is vulnerable to tech failures. Picture credit: PXHere