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Singapore latest to join Asian push against fake news

Free speech advocates and global tech leaders fear chilling effect

Singapore has moved to restrict fake news spread through social media, prompting concerns about the erosion of free speech.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- Singapore has joined a growing campaign in Asia to crack down on fake or misleading information on the internet, prompting concerns that government-led efforts could infringe on the already limited freedom of speech in the city-state.

A sweeping bill submitted to parliament on Monday would remove or force corrections to online information considered inaccurate by government monitors. In addition to individuals and businesses responsible for the information, platform operators such as Facebook and Yahoo would be required to take action to limit the viewing of such content.

The city-state already heavily regulates its media outlets, and critics have raised concerns about a chilling effect on free speech. The trend has reached other Asian countries, such as Malaysia and Cambodia, heightening the risk that authoritarian governments will cite the danger of fake news to control free speech.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong defended the bill, citing actions taken by the U.S., U.K. and France against online falsehoods and noting how uniquely vulnerable Singapore is to the threat.

"Many governments are studying this closely and deciding what measures to take," Lee said during a speech on Friday. "For example, the U.S. has held hearings to investigate how social media platforms like Facebook were used to influence the 2016 Presidential Elections."

"We are open and English speaking, our mobile and internet penetration rate is high, and being a multiracial, multi-ethnic society, we have enduring fault lines that can be easily exploited," he added.

Given that Lee's ruling People's Action Party commands a supermajority in the legislature, the bill is expected to pass. People convicted of violating the law would face up to 10 years in prison.

"We are also concerned that the proposed legislation gives the Singapore government full discretion over what is considered true or false," the Asia Internet Coalition said in a statement published Monday. The coalition comprises tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Japanese e-tailer Rakuten.

The international nonprofit Reporters Without Borders ranks Singapore 151st out of 180 nations and jurisdictions when it comes to press freedom. Authorities clamp down on demonstrations, and the bill could create an additional chilling effect on political discourse.

In Malaysia, then-Prime Minister Najib Razak passed legislation making it an offense to disseminate fake news right before the general election in 2018, a move widely criticized as stifling free speech. Najib immediately used the legislation to investigate opponent Mahathir Mohamad, who defeated Najib in a stunning upset.

The current prime minister, Mahathir, has tried to repeal the law, but the effort has stalled in the upper house of parliament.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen instructed his cabinet ministers to consider enacting similar legislation in March, local media reported.

"Some countries have created anti-fake news laws and some other countries have anti-cybercrime laws," Hun Sen said Monday. "So, Cambodia must think about these laws."

Though fake news does threaten democracy, attempts by Asian nations to control it also highlight risks to free speech.

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