3 NMPs propose amendments to Singapore's anti-fake news bill

NMPs (from left) Anthea Ong, Irene Quay and Walter Theseira, who have proposed amendments to the Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill.
PHOTO: The Straits Times, Irene Quay

Singapore's proposed new law to combat "fake news" is facing strong resistance ahead of a parliamentary debate on the legislation - with three independent lawmakers this week joining the fray by proposing amendments to the controversial bill.

The intervention by the three nominated members of parliament (NMPs) comes amid alarm among some Singapore-focused academics, journalists and global tech giants, over provisions in the law which they say give the government arbitrary powers to determine what is deemed as a fact.

The critics have said that, more than anything, the Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill is likely to strengthen the ruling People's Action Party's (PAP) long-standing firm approach towards dissent.

Foremost among their concerns is that the government will use the law to target material such as academic papers, parodies and satire which do not paint the PAP in a good light.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's government has volleyed back, claiming the law is necessary to combat the proliferation of deliberate falsehoods that could harm social stability in the multiracial city state.

Among the proposed measures are penalties of 10 years' jail time and $1 million in fines for the most severe cases of fake news propagation.

The most controversial part of the law, observers say, is its top-down approach.

Under the proposed legislation, all of Lee's ministers will be handed powers to demand corrections or order websites to be blocked if they are deemed to be propagating "falsehoods" contrary to the public interest.

The amendments proposed by the NMPs - released online on Tuesday ahead of a parliamentary session next Monday - suggest that the government's decisions on what is fake news should be subject to a review by an independent council.

The trio - Anthea Ong, Irene Quay and Walter Theseira - also proposed that the government spell out the rationale for its decisions, and for parties appealing against these decisions to have access to low-cost methods of legal recourse.

While agreeing with the intent of the proposed law, the lawmakers said the bill in its current form did not contain assurances on the limits of its powers. "The bill also contains broadly worded clauses defining what is a false statement and what constitutes public interest," they said.

The trio said in tabling their amendments to the bill, they had consulted academics, lawyers, civil society activists and representatives of the country's online media portals.

"We believe these amendments preserve the ability of the executive to act against online falsehoods in the public interest, while ensuring that such decisions are subject to good governance," they said.

Their amendment followed a sharply-worded letter by academics around the world to the government over their concerns that the proposed law would threaten academic freedom in the city state.

The academics said the proposed powers to police falsehoods could backfire on researchers. "The legislation may also set negative precedents, with knock-on effects on the global academy," wrote the professors.

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They noted that much of academic work focuses on disputing apparently established "facts", which are confirmed or denied through research, and continuously reappraised as new data becomes available.

Some of the signatories told This Week in Asia they welcomed the independent lawmakers' proposals.

Linda Lim, a business professor at the University of Michigan, said the three lawmakers "were undertaking what they were appointed to do by improving on government proposed legislation".

"The fact that a significant number of locally-based academics signed our letter is also a good sign of more citizen participation in the legislative process," she said. "If our concerns and those of other impacted groups are heeded and the law amended, democracy is strengthened."

Others continue to have misgivings about the law, even with the proposed changes.

Communications professor Mohan Dutta, who is based in New Zealand's Massey University, appreciated the proposed amendments by the NMPs, but observed that they did not include suggestions to modify what constitutes "statements of fact" and "public interest".

Dutta took issue with the bill's definition of a "falsehood" - a statement which a reasonable person seeing, hearing or otherwise perceiving it would consider to be a representation of fact; and that is false or misleading.

"Take, for instance, how the term 'fake news' has often been deployed by US President Donald Trump to delegitimise journalists and to undermine truth," said Dutta, who was formerly head of the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Communications and New Media Department.

"What this demonstrates is that one must be critical when considering the decision-making power, who gets to be the arbiter of truth, and how the decision on what is truth constitutes the fabric of democracy."

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Historian John DiMoia from Seoul National University said he had hoped the NMPs would have taken further the suggestion to provide judicial and independent oversight at an earlier stage in any decision.

"I think it makes sense to provide a finer grained and graduated coverage for any problems, rather than [using the legislation as] a blunt instrument of excess power," he said.

DiMoia, who also used to lecture at NUS, added that academics worldwide had banded together to issue a public statement last month because "the very nature of speculative questions, raising new ideas, is what many scholars and social scientists do on a daily basis in university settings".

"Failure to differentiate these scholarly exercises - that is, asking questions - and speech clearly meant for a public setting lumps them together in a single mass, and will shut down discussion, which may or may not be intended," he said. "A much more nuanced approach would be a better alternative."

Government ministers, meanwhile, have sought to press home their view that ordinary citizens need not worry about the law.

K Shanmugam, the powerful law and home affairs minister, suggested in an interview with local media that concerns about the law were confined to a small pocket of Singapore.

"So for the people who are engaging us, those who have concerns, my message has been very simple and I've said it publicly: 'Ninety-nine per cent of the people don't have to worry about what they do 99 per cent of the time'," Shanmugam said in the interview with local news agency CNA.

Singapore Education Minister Ong Ye Kung has said people 'need not be overly worried' about the law. Photo: Handout

Education minister Ong Ye Kung, one of the PAP's fourth-generation leaders set to take power from Lee's administration, meanwhile said last week that "everyone need not be overly worried" about the law.

"You ask, and we will answer, and we will solve these problems together," he was quoted by The Straits Times in response to public criticism about the law.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.