Singapore: New law on “online falsehoods” a grave threat to freedom of expression

ARTICLE 19 is extremely concerned about a law on “online falsehoods” passed yesterday by Singapore’s Parliament. The legislation contains many vague and overly broad provisions that could be used to restrict a wide range of speech protected by international human rights law, including criticism of public officials and the expression of controversial or minority opinions. We call on Singapore’s Parliament to repeal this problematic legislation and take steps to lift other restrictions on free speech. 

On 8 May 2019, Singapore’s Parliament passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (the Act) with a vote of 72 to nine, with three abstentions. The Act was passed despite strong objections from academics, civil society and political parties, who warned that the Act was dangerous and would give government the power to decide what is true and false in Singapore.

The Act prohibits individuals—both in Singapore and abroad—from knowingly using the internet to communicate to individuals in Singapore any “false statement” that is likely to influence elections, diminish confidence in the government, “incite feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will”, or be “prejudicial to” Singapore’s security or foreign relations, public health, public safety, public tranquility or public finances.

The Act enables any Minister to demand a broad range of measures from internet users, newspapers, broadcast licensees, internet service providers and internet intermediaries. These individuals and entities may be required to issue corrections, halt communications on a particular subject, block access to online content and disable accounts, among other actions. The Ministers issuing such orders are empowered to determine whether a communication constitutes a false statement and are additionally tasked with determining whether a restriction is “in the public interest”, making government officials the final arbiter of truth.

The Act imposes harsh criminal penalties on persons or entities—including internet service providers and intermediaries—that violate its provisions or fail to comply with relevant orders issued under its authority. Sanctions include high fines and terms of imprisonment from 12 months to ten years.

ARTICLE 19 finds that the Act fails to meet international human rights standards relating to freedom of expression for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • The scope of the Act is extremely broad, in part because the necessary relationship between the falsity of information and the specified harms is not clearly defined. Falsity is not a legitimate basis for restricting speech under international human rights law. Moreover, restrictions on the basis of national security and other legitimate interests must meet other criteria provided by international human rights law. The Act thus opens opportunities for abuse, including by enabling the government to suppress speech it deems false or “prejudicial” despite only vague connections to alleged harms.
  • Under the Act, the power to enforce the law is given to the executive branch, not to courts or independent adjudicatory bodies. According to international standards, judicial oversight is necessary to safeguard against unwarranted limitations on freedom of expression and to avoid abusive application of the law by authorities. Although the Act provides for appeals to the High Court, the possibility of judicial review is limited.
  • The potential scope of orders under the Act is also very broad and there is no requirement to assess the necessity or proportionality of measures based on the nature of the content or severity of harm caused by it.
  • The criminal sanctions described in the Act—in particular lengthy custodial sentences—are grossly disproportionate, especially in light of the fact that alleged offenses may have only vague connections to the specified harms.
  • In practice, the Act would require both government authorities as well as internet intermediaries and internet service providers to proactively monitor online content and interactions, violating internet users’ right to privacy and freedom of expression.
  • The Act has an extra-territorial scope, allowing authorities to restrict access to international sources of information. The Act would also enable authorities to seek the removal of content created or shared by persons and entities, including media organisations, based abroad. The Act thus violates the principle that States should not interfere with the free flow of information outside of their own territory.

For these reasons, ARTICLE 19 urges Singapore’s Parliament to repeal the Act, and urges all authorities to avoid its arbitrary or targeted use to silence government critics, suppress minority opinions or otherwise restrict freedom of expression. ARTICLE 19 also calls on the government to consider broader reforms to align Singapore’s legal framework with international human rights standards relating to freedom of expression.

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