Today, the ICJ urged Singapore’s Parliament not to pass the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill 2019 (‘Online Falsehoods Bill’), which was tabled on Monday, 1 April.
The ICJ said that the bill, if passed into law, would result in far-reaching limitations on freedom of expression, opinion and information in Singapore, and could be wielded to curtail important discussion of matters of public interest, including content critical of the government.
“This bill, if passed, would make the government the sole arbiter of what information is permissible online and what is not, creating a real risk that the law will be misused to clamp down on opinions or information critical of the government,” said Frederick Rawski, ICJ Director for Asia and the Pacific.
The bill authorizes ministers to direct individuals, owners or operators of online platforms, digital advertising and internet intermediaries to remove, make corrections to, disable or block access to a “false statement of fact”, if such action is deemed to be “in the public interest”. Such ministerial directions can be made even if a false statement “has been amended or has ceased to be communicated in Singapore”.
The bill does not provide any real definition of “false statement of fact” and does not clarify what constitutes “public interest”. The bill also fails to provide for exceptions or defences such as honest mistake, parody, artistic merit, or public interest. Executive discretion is also not subject to judicial review or oversight under its provisions.
Criminal penalties for non-compliance with the law are severe, and include hefty fines and up to ten years’ imprisonment for violations.
These may be imposed on individuals and/or owners or operators of online platforms, as well as intermediaries who facilitate the communication of such statements, including social networking services, search engine services, internet-based messaging services and video-sharing services.
The bill is also clear that communications through SMS (Short Message Service) and MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) fall under its remit.
“The spread of misinformation online is a complex problem that cannot be effectively addressed by simply granting broad discretion to government officials to censor online expression,” said Rawski.
“A multi-pronged approach that protects the rights to free expression, opinion and information is required, beginning with better media literacy education and free access to information, including to opinions critical of the government,” he added.
Frederick Rawski, ICJ Asia Pacific Regional Director (Bangkok), e: frederick.rawski(a)icj.org
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