Singapore Goes on Global Offensive to Defend ‘Fake News’ Law

Philip J. Heijmans and Yoolim Lee

(Bloomberg) -- Singaporean diplomats are taking the lead in defending a two-month-old fake news law, challenging international media outlets it says are publishing misleading claims on the contentious legislation.

Since the law was enacted in October, authorities in the Southeast Asian city-state have invoked it four times against critics and once against Facebook Inc., which was required to attach a government-issued “correction” to content deemed to contain falsehoods. Government officials have also countered critical media coverage of the law, known as the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act.

Foo Chi Hsia, Singapore’s High Commissioner to the U.K., stated the Economist had misrepresented the law, writing in a Dec. 21 letter to the editor that it “should be looked at in the same context as our belief in the right of reply, which in our view enhances rather than reduces the quality of public discourse.“

“Readers can see both and decide for themselves which is the truth,” she wrote. “How does twinning factual replies to falsehoods limit free speech?”

Earlier in December, Singapore’s ambassador to the U.S., Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, disputed a Washington Post story that cited critics saying the law could have a “chilling effect on online free expression.” In the letter, obtained by Bloomberg, he also criticized Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, who was quoted as an expert in the story. Days later, Bernard Toh, director of the Ministry of Communications and Information’s information policy division, accused Fred Ryan, the newspaper’s publisher, of “perpetuating false allegations,” local media reported.

Free Speech

The battle for public opinion comes as social-media companies weigh the impact of the law on their businesses. Opposition Singaporean politicians are also worried the law will suppress dissent ahead of elections that must be held by April 2021. They expect the ruling People’s Action Party, which has governed Singapore since independence in 1965, to win despite a slowing economy.

Singapore’s government has said the new law is not aimed at stifling free speech and is enforced independently of the election cycle. “This is equally true with laws regulating the exercise of the rights of free speech and assembly, and with any other law,” the Ministry of Law wrote in an emailed response to questions, noting that content impacted by the law remains intact alongside the ordered correction, which links to a full justification. “They can read both and decide for themselves on the truth. This encourages greater transparency,” the ministry said.

Singapore is the latest Asian country seeking to counteract the flood of fake news in an era when messages delivered to smartphones over platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp have become as trusted as articles from traditional media sources. In elections earlier this year, both India and Indonesia sought to monitor the spread of fake news and counter the dissemination of rumors.

Some provisions in the law are unique to Singapore, which has increased risks for global tech companies. In addition to requiring companies to post “corrections” to user posts, the law may also require them to ensure the correction is seen by every user in Singapore who has read the offending post. Penalties for failing to comply can be as high as S$1 million ($738,500) per post and a further S$100,000 per day for non-compliance following a conviction.

‘Correction Direction’

In one case last month, Minister of Home Affairs K Shanmugam instructed a “correction direction” to be issued to Sydney-based Alex Tan Zhi Xiang for posting alleged falsehoods against the ruling party to the Facebook page of his political blog “States Times Review.” In a Facebook post on Nov. 27, Tan said he hadn’t received a request from Australian authorities to take down any article, and said both he and the publication “will not comply with any order from a foreign government like North Korea or Singapore.”

Tan said later by phone that he never received such a notice from Singapore, and updated his post within 24 hours in an effort to be compliant with the law after learning of the offense from a friend.

One day after the government statement was issued, the minister for home affairs said Tan didn’t comply with the order and commenced investigation proceedings against him. It said that a correction direction “requires the recipient to publish a correction notice, providing access to the correct facts.” The order also instructed Facebook to post a correction, and the company complied.

“As it is early days of the law coming into effect, we hope the Singapore government’s assurances that it will not impact free expression will lead to a measured and transparent approach to implementation,” a Facebook spokesperson said by email.

Critics say the recent cases are just the latest in a string of attacks on dissent. Singapore’s crackdown on critical voices has “intensified” in the past year, according to a report published last month by U.S.-based Freedom House, which cited government moves to temporarily block two local outlets and the prosecution of activists and journalists.

“These examples underscore how the government is weaponizing what is the genuine issue of disinformation in order to suppress information online and the rights to free expression and access to information,” said Allie Funk, a research analyst for the group’s “Freedom on the Net” program.

Opposition Fears

Singapore’s political parties have also expressed concern. In a letter leaked by the opposition Singapore Democratic Party on Dec. 3, Google informed party chairman Paul Tambyah the company would not be accepting political advertising regulated by the new law, citing similar decisions made in Canada and Taiwan.

“This was not an easy decision to make as Google is committed to delivering useful and relevant election-related information to users around the world,” Ted Osius, Google’s vice president for government affairs and public policy in Asia Pacific, wrote in the letter, which was verified by Bloomberg.

Tambyah questioned the decision in an emailed reply, calling the ban on political ads a threat to democracy and saying “evil is often perpetrated by people and organizations who, wittingly or otherwise, ban freedom of speech.”

Twitter Inc. has indicated it is ready to comply with the law and has set up a dedicated team to review government requests.

“We remain concerned about the potential impacts of this regulation on our service, and the people and institutions that use Twitter,” a Twitter spokesman wrote in an email, urging the government to enforce the law judiciously.

Facebook said in September it has taken steps to reduce the spread of misinformation, adding that it would start enforcing a global policy in Singapore introducing tighter regulations for political advertisements that require identity and location disclosures. The statement didn’t specifically mention Singapore’s new law.

Singapore’s government is also considering a separate bill targeting foreign interference that would give authorities “powers to make targeted, surgical interventions” to investigate hostile information campaigns from abroad, Law Minister K Shanmugam said during a speech in September.

“There are always ‘reasons’ to take more and more power and this is just another,” said Brad Bowyer, a member of the opposition party Progress Singapore, who himself was the target of the law’s first correction direction. “It is a dark and dangerous path they are on.”

(Updates with Tan’s Facebook post on compliance in 10th paragraph. An earlier version corrected the currency conversion in eighth paragraph, corrected the characterization of Tan’s compliance with the directive in ninth paragraph and added additional information.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Philip J. Heijmans in Singapore at pheijmans1@bloomberg.net;Yoolim Lee in Singapore at yoolim@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ruth Pollard at rpollard2@bloomberg.net, Daniel Ten Kate

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