Singapore will become the latest government to make what it deems to be “fake news” illegal from tomorrow when its draconian “Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act” becomes law.
When the law was tabled in April, Jeff Paine of the Asia Internet Coalition warned that it was “the most far-reaching legislation of its kind to date.” Journalism professor Cherian George also raised concerns that the effects of this legislation on free speech could even be worse than the country’s controversial criminal defamation laws which puts independent journalists, activists, and critics at risk of being imprisoned by the government.
However, the government has defended this fake news law with Singapore’s Minister for Law Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam even claiming that it protects free speech: “If (online falsehoods) are not dealt with, then free speech itself will be undermined, democracy will be undermined, public institutions will be undermined, and that is happening everywhere.”
From tomorrow, if the government decides that an individual has maliciously spread false information online which is damaging to the public interest, they face a jail term of up to five years. Being found guilty of using bots or fake accounts to spread fake news carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to S$1 million ($730,600).
Online platforms will also be required to post corrections or take down content that the government deems to be false. If online platforms don’t comply, they will be liable for similar fines of up to S$1 million.
The government has suggested that it may also try to apply this law to private and encrypted chat apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram with Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong saying: “Closed platforms, chat groups, social media groups, can serve as a public megaphone as much as an open platform.” However, it hasn’t explained how it would gain access to these private chats.
While the law does have an appeals process, decisions are implemented first and the appeals process is both time-consuming and costly – a setup that critics have said dissuades people from appealing.
The enforcement of this law comes after many countries including France and Germany have rolled out similar legislation that criminalizes what the government deems to be fake news in recent years. France’s fake news law backfired spectacularly in April when its government got blocked from running Twitter ads because of the country’s fake news law. Meanwhile, Facebook was fined for violating Germany’s “hate speech” laws, which also apply to fake news, in July – the first time an American company had been fined by a European country for violations of this type of law.