The Singapore government has introduced a legislation in parliament to control the dissemination of fake news, and is applicable to media outlets as well as online platforms. The bill has led to debate and criticism of its provisions, which gives direct censorship powers to executive authorities without requirement for prior judicial approval, and contains vague and broad language in a number of provisions detailing the kind of communications that will attract penalties under the bill.

BBC reports that the bill has been passed in the context of elections that are expected to be held in the near future. The ruling party in Singapore, in power since independence, has been reported in the past as using power to restrict criticism, thereby curtailing free speech rights. The bill is a significant step in this direction, with multiple provisions designed to block the spread of information identified as “false statements”.

Key Provisions affecting Online Speech

1. “Public Interest” justification: The definition of ‘public interest’ contained in Section 4, contains commonly found concerns such as national security and public safety, but also a clause on prevention of “diminution of public confidence in the performance of any duty or function of… the Government”.

  • The phrasing is used repeatedly in the bill as a basis for executive directions for removal and blocking of any material deemed by a minister as being opposed to the public interest.
  • This means that the individual determination of a minister is sufficient to legally require any person to stop the circulation of information, as well as issue a statement ‘correcting’ the information in question.

2. Correction and Blocking directions to persons and Intermediaries: Parts 3 and 4 of the bill contain provisions that allow executive orders to:

  • correct information;
  • stop communicating a certain piece of information or anything substantially similar;
  • issue a correction to all end-users of an internet intermediary; and disable access to a specific subject material for all end-users of an internet intermediary.

The powers to exercise these restrictive provisions are all under the discretion of the government, which may employ them in case of any information they deem false, or for ‘public interest’, as explained above.

3. Punishment for Provision of services:

  • Any person providing communication services, whether from within or outside Singapore, will also be liable for any communication punishable by the bill, if the person does so “knowing that the service” would be used for such communication (Section 9).
  • The punishment for such offence is greater if the information, over and above being false, is deemed to be harmful to public interest, including the concerns discussed earlier — such as national security and diminishing public confidence in the government.

Continuing Debate: Platforms v. the Government

The bill is widely expected to be passed into law soon as the government enjoys a supermajority in parliament. The bill has attracted criticism from civil rights groups as well as the business sector, notably Facebook. The law minister of Singapore, K Shanmugam, also shared a facebook post attempting to allay concerns regarding the excesses of the bill.