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Singapore ‘fake news’ legislation endangers press freedom

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The Committee to Protect Journalists has called on the Singapore parliament to reject legislation that would force online platforms to take down or amend news or information authorities deem as false.

The legislation, known as the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, allows for maximum S$1m fines (US$740,000) and 10-year prison terms for owners and administrators of websites that fail to comply with official requests to correct or remove content ruled as objectionable, according to news reports. The bill was introduced into parliament on 1 April, according to those reports.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the legislation would require tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to immediately issue corrections of false information published on their platforms and inform users when they may have been exposed to inaccuracies. It would also give government ministers the ability to order news organisations to publish corrections to false information being spread online, according to local news website Today.

The law would grant all government ministers the power to determine if information is false and if it is harming the public interest and to issue takedown or correction notices, according to Today. Websites would have the right to request a judicial review of such orders, but only after the orders have been issued, CNBC reported.

“This legislation represents a clear and present danger to online press freedom and should be dropped immediately,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior South East Asia representative. “Singapore’s leaders already have a deplorable record of censorship and tight control over the news media, and this vague legislation will inevitably lend itself to abuse. Singapore needs less, not more regulation, of its online media.”

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Criminal sanctions under the legislation would be imposed if information that authorities deem false was spread by “malicious actors” who “undermine society”, according to Singapore’s Law Ministry, as reported by Reuters.

The ministry added that it would cut off a website’s “ability to profit” without shutting it down if it was determined to have published three falsehoods that were “against the public interest” over a six-month period. The ministry did not specify how a website’s funds would be restricted, but news reports note that authorities could bar digital advertisers from serving websites deemed to violate the regulations.

Singapore Law Minister K Shanmugam was quoted by Reuterson 1 April as saying that the legislation would not hinder free speech because it “deals with false statements of facts. It doesn’t deal with opinions, it doesn’t deal with viewpoints.”

The Law Ministry did not immediately reply to CPJ’s emailed request for comment.

The legislation is the outgrowth of a Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods established by Singapore’s parliament in January last year, according to Today.

Singapore already has several laws and regulations on the books to censor news or content, particularly surrounding commentary and reporting on politics and security issues, according to CPJ research. Journalists have been imprisoned or forced into financial ruin.

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