(New York) – Singapore’s proposed law on “online falsehoods” is sweepingly broad and threatens to stifle discussion on websites worldwide, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should withdraw the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation bill, introduced in Parliament on April 1, 2019, and significantly revise it to comply with international protections for freedom of speech.
The proposed law would authorize Singapore to order “corrections” to online content hosted anywhere in the world if a minister determines that a statement is false in whole or in part, that it is being communicated in Singapore, and that it is in the public interest to issue such a correction. The bill defines public interest broadly to include protecting Singapore’s “friendly relations” with other countries; preventing the diminution of public confidence in the government, any statutory board or part of the government; or protecting “public tranquillity.” The proposed law provides no guidance on how the minister will make a determination whether a statement is true or false or what standards are to be used in doing so.
“Singapore’s ministers should not have the power to singlehandedly decree what is true and what is false,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Given Singapore’s long history of prohibiting speech critical of the government, its policies or its officials, its professed concerns about ‘online falsehoods’ and alleged election manipulation are farcical.”
Under the proposed law, any minister could order the issuance of a “correction direction” that requires the person or website that posted the material deemed false by the minister to post a “correction” in language specified by the minister or a body appointed by the minister indicating that the statement at issue is “false.” The direction can be ordered regardless of whether the person who posted the material is in Singapore, as long as the material can be accessed in Singapore. Failure to comply with such a direction can be punished with up to 12 months in prison and a S$20,000 (US$14,800) fine.
The minister could also authorize an order requiring an individual to stop communicating a particular statement in Singapore and to ensure that the statement is no longer available anywhere on or through the internet to end-users in the country. These provisions could easily be abused to silence or declare “false” criticisms of government actions or policies, or criticism of individual ministers.