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Politics

Singapore set to tackle fake news with new law

Government intervention is necessary, parliamentary committee concludes

Amid the growing presence of digital technology such as social media, the committee report says that the government should have the power to "swiftly disrupt the spread and influence" of fake news.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- Singapore is set to create legislation to combat what it calls online falsehoods, or fake news. The new rules could cause public concerns of being used by the government to suppress free speech. 

The parliamentary select committee, a 10-member group formed earlier this year to examine the impact of fake news on the country, on Thursday announced that it had concluded the government needs measures, including legislation, to combat online falsehoods.

According to the committee report, Singapore is "a target of hostile information campaigns" and the country's diverse social landscape creates "wide opportunities for falsehoods to undermine Singapore's social cohesion." Government intervention is necessary, the report said.

"There is no single solution for such serious and widespread problem," committee Chairman Charles Chong said during Thursday's news conference.

The committee made 22 recommendations that they think should be addressed through legislative and nonlegislative measures. One of them states that "the government should have the powers to swiftly disrupt the spread and influence of online falsehoods."

The recommendations also include one stating that the government should identify "additional measures needed to safeguard election integrity," as the committee found the threat of fake news to be heightened during election campaigns. Singapore is due for a general election by early 2021.

A Singapore parliamentary committee made 22 recommendations to combat fake news. (Photo by Kentaro Iwamoto)

In addition, four recommendations are about "quality journalism," stating that journalists should "proactively find ways to update their skills in digital fact-checking."

The committee did not provide a time frame for implementation, or specify the language and structure of the legislation, noting that those decisions will be left to the government.

The committee held public hearings with 65 organizations, including social media companies like Facebook and Twitter, and individuals, including lawyers, journalists, and students from various backgrounds.

fake news Charles Chong, chairman of the committee, right, speaks during a press conference on September 20. (Photo by Kentaro Iwamoto)

During the public hearings, representatives from Facebook told the committee: "We do not believe that legislation is the best approach to addressing the issue," citing existing laws and regulations that address hate speech, defamation and the spread of false news.

Also, a journalist had written that "deliberate online falsehoods" and "fake news" were ill-defined terms and can easily be wielded by the government to suppress free speech. "Any legislation built upon such ambiguous term would be overly broad and thus have a chilling effect on open dialogue and exchange in Singapore."

The committee said the definition of "falsehood" will be made in the legislation. A committee member said in the news conference that "freedom of speech should not be extended to protect deliberate fabrication of falsehoods."

The committee's conclusion comes after a contradictory move by its neighbor. Malaysia's lower house in August passed a bill to abolish a law banning fake news, which was formed under former Prime Minister Najib Razak ahead of the historic general election in May. Critics had feared the law could be used arbitrarily to stifle dissent.

According to Human Rights Watch, Singapore citizens face "severe restrictions on their basic rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly through overly broad criminal laws and regulations." Singapore ranked 151st among 180 countries and regions in this year's World Press Freedom Index.

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