Singapore law bans fake news, allows government to remove or block it

Fake news is no more in Singapore.

The southern East Asia nation passed a law Wednesday night criminalizing the publication of fake news and allowing the government to block and order the removal of such content.

The law bans falsehoods that are deemed “against the public interest,” are prejudicial to Singapore or are likely to influence elections. Offenders could face up to 10 years in jail and hefty fines.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill will come into force in the next couple of weeks. The government said that the law would not target opinion, but only falsehoods that could prove damaging.

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The law would be applied across a broad range of platforms, from social media to news websites.

“Free speech should not be affected by this bill,” Law Minister K Shanmugam told parliament, the BBC reported.

Shanmugam said the orders to correct or remove false content would mostly be directed at technology companies, rather than individuals who ran afoul of the law without intent, according to the Strait Times.

However, critics claim the law gives government ministers too much power to determine what is false.

Human Rights Watch sharply criticized the law. It is a "disaster for online expression by ordinary Singaporeans" and a "hammer blow" against the independence of online news portals, said Phil Robertson, the group's deputy Asia director.

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One of the most controversial aspects of the law is that it could be applied to close private platforms that include end-to-end encryption, according to the BBC. This could mean that apps like WhatsApp, which is hugely popular in Singapore, would be affected.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last month defended the proposed law, saying many countries had them and that Singapore had debated the issue for two years. He rejected criticism the law could further stifle free speech in Singapore, which already has stern laws on public protests and dissent.

"They criticized many things about Singapore's media management, but what we have done have worked for Singapore. And it is our objective to continue to do things that will work for Singapore. And I think (the new law) will be a significant step forward in this regard," he said on a visit to Malaysia.

Speaking at the same news conference, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad warned such laws were a double-edged sword that could be abused by governments to stay in power.

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Malaysia's own fake news ban was rushed into law by the government Mahathir's coalition ousted in a shock election result in 2018. Mahathir has promised to try to repeal the law, though a first attempt to do so failed.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.