Singapore government passes fake news bill, rebuts naysayers in parliament

After two days of debate in parliament, the Singapore government has passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (POFMA) with a majority of 72 votes, despite all nine from the Workers’ Party voting against it, according to various media reports.
Under the law, those who spread or accelerate online falsehoods could face jail terms of up to 10 years and fines of up to SG$1 million. Additionally, it clamps down on the use of an inauthentic online account or a bot to communicate falsehoods. Internet platforms or individuals refusing to display corrections alongside malicious posts or remove them may also face hefty fines and jail terms.

According to a news report by CNA, Low Thia Khiang from Workers’ Party had called out the bill for having a “hidden agenda” that allows ministers to have “absolute power” over what constitutes as falsehoods and what the punishment should be.

On this, law minister K Shanmugam said that the bill serves to bring transparency.“You put up an article, Government says this is not correct. You carry a correction [and] let your readers judge. What’s the problem? ,” he said.

During the debates, other MPs from the People’s Action Party also raised concerns. Murali Pillai for instance, discussed how appeals can only be made after a minister has made a decision, said the news report. However, his concerns were later pacified after minister K Shanmugam explained that it will be a transparent and fair process, where the minister involved will have to state the reasons behind the decisions and publish them.

Senior minister of state Edwin Tong announced during his second reading in parliament on 7 May that POFMA will extend to closed platforms such as chat groups and social media groups, which are of serious concern as they can be hidden from view while facilitating falsehoods. A day earlier, he also responded to an opinion piece by the managing director of Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) Jeff Paine on The Straits Times regarding the threats to freedom of speech and expression, lack of checks and balances, and overly broad language in the bill. On the topic of exemption clauses, which allows anyone to be exempted and called by Paine as ambiguous, Tong clarified that the provision primarily benefits technology companies.

“Exemptions can be given where technical constraints impede compliance with the law. The clause appears in various other legislation, for the same reason. Of course, if Mr Paine’s comments in this regard truly represent the views of his clients, the Government is prepared to consider removing this clause,” added Tong.

In a tweet, AIC said acknowledged the response.

The bill has been met with many criticism since it was announced, prompting Singapore Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong to defend it at an event recently. Reporters Without Borders called out the bill for combining loose wording with catch-all formulations that “extend the range of applicability of the penalties to absolutely all content circulating online” and providing government ministers with “an almost absolute power of interpretation.” Several technology and social media companies have previously also expressed concerns over the lack of public consultation.