Critics fear Singapore uses its fake news law to curb freedom of expression


The government of Singapore has showed the world how it plans to use a controversial new law to tackle what it considers fake news, by taking action twice this week on two Facebook posts it claimed to be containing “false statements of fact”, since it took effect last month.

When introducing the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) earlier this year, the Singaporean government said it was necessary to stop dangerous disinformation and hateful content.

Critics said it would lead to increased censorship and official overreach in a country where freedom of expression is already under pressure. This week’s events suggest those fears may be justified.

“This is the start of the downward slide for what little remains of political and press freedom in Singapore,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

One offending item was a Facebook post by an opposition politician that questioned the governance of the city-state’s sovereign wealth funds and some of their investment decisions. The other post was published by an Australia-based blog that claimed police had arrested a “whistleblower” who “exposed” a political candidate’s religious affiliations.

In both cases, Singapore officials ordered the accused to include the government’s rebuttal at the top of their posts. The government announcements were accompanied by screenshots of the original posts with the word “FALSE” stamped in giant letters across them.

In his original Facebook post, Brad Bowyer, a member of the city-state’s opposition party, criticized sovereign wealth fund Temasek for investing in what he described as a “debt ridden” restaurant company. His post also questioned investments made by GIC, Singapore’s other wealth fund.

Bowyer updated his post to comply with the official order.

The States Times Review, meanwhile, was accused of publishing falsehoods about the alleged arrest of a “whistleblower” who revealed that a political candidate connected to Singapore’s ruling party had religious affiliations, a potential source of controversy in a country with many ethnic and religious groups. The publication, a blog with about 50,000 Facebook followers that is blocked in Singapore, also claimed that “elections in Singapore are rigged.”

Unlike Bowyer, the States Times Review refused to comply with the government order. Editor Alex Tan said in a subsequent Facebook post that his publication is based in Australia and he is not bound by foreign government orders.

The government on Friday asked Facebook to publish the correction notice instead, and said it has “commenced investigations” against Tan for not complying with its order.

Facebook previously said it had concerns at the law’s granting of “broad powers to the Singapore executive branch to compel us to remove content they deem to be false and proactively push a government notification to users.”

Under this law, the government can prosecute individuals with fines of up to 50,000 Singapore dollars (about $36,000) and/or up to five years in prison. If the alleged falsehood is posted using “an inauthentic online account or controlled by a bot,” the potential fine rises to 100,000 Singapore dollars (around $73,000), and/or up to 10 years in prison.

Companies found guilty of spreading so-called fake news can face fines of up to 1 million Singapore dollars (roughly $735,000). (Source: CNN)