Singapore strikes against fake news

MAY 12 — Last week, Singapore's parliament passed a Bill giving government ministers broad powers to combat fake news. 

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act gives ministers the power to order the retraction/removal of articles spreading false and malicious news.  

Action will be taken when a “deliberate online falsehood” threatens the public interest. 

In these cases, ministers can work with a relevant authority ie. the Media Development Authority to order the content removed or corrected. Failure to comply would lead to fines of up to S$1 million (RM3 million). 

The law was introduced after considerable debate. The government has held consultations and discussions on the Bill for almost two years. The debate over the Bill in parliament was also extended, stretching over two days. 

The length of the deliberation process and the intensity of the debate in parliament highlight how important the Bill is.  Opponents have argued that it would give ministers too much control over information and the media.

It is crucial to note that the Act allows ministers to flag pieces of fake news and request action be taken by a competent authority.   So initial measures are taken by ministers rather than the courts. 

It also raised eyebrows when it became clear that the new law would also apply to the spread of news on private networks like Facebook and WhatsApp . 

How authorities will monitor the spread of information on encrypted private networks like WhatsApp and Telegram is an open question.

Singapore now has one of the most far reaching anti fake-news law in the world and the question is – is it necessary? 

Fake news isn’t really a new phenomenon. While some sections of US media behave like it was invented by and for the benefit of Donald Trump, the reality is that fake news has been with us for as long as news and the media.

For various reasons people have always spread rumours, propaganda, misinformation and slander. The government argues though that today's connected environment and the extent of social media gives malign actors unprecedented ability to spread destabilising information – fast. 

The government also argues that these pieces of information can have a real impact inciting riots, racial disharmony and lead to unchecked slander and victimisation. 

There is some truth to this, though with every new form of communication from the invention of the printing press onwards governments have complained that disinformation can be spread too fast via new mediums.  

While it's clear modern social media can be a rapid conduit of disinformation, Singapore also already has extensive laws covering defamation, slander, statements threatening racial harmony etc. 

So, did we really need this new law? We are about to find out.  

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.