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Singapore's Fake News and Contempt Laws a Threat to Media, Journalists Say

FILE - Journalists wait outside St. Regis Hotel in Singapore, June 11, 2018. ,
FILE - Journalists wait outside St. Regis Hotel in Singapore, June 11, 2018. ,

It allows the government to order the removal of any content posted on social media by companies, organizations, or individuals.

A pair of Singaporean laws designed to block false news and criticism of the courts are being used to silence and harass independent news outlets, rights groups and journalists say.

The latest government injunction, handed down April 19, targeted an independently owned news outlet for reporting the salary of Ho Ching, chief executive of state-owned investment firm Temasek Holdings and the wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Calling the salary figures inaccurately reported, the government invoked a fake news law forcing editors of The Online Citizen (TOC) to issue "correction notices" or risk facing fines of up to $14,000 US (20,000 Singapore dollars) or a year in jail.

Passed in October, Singapore's Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), which has been invoked 22 times, allows the government alone to dictate which websites, news outlets or social media platforms are required to label content it deems false.

It also allows the government to order the removal of any content posted on social media by companies, organizations, or individuals.

The April 19 directive is the second to hit TOC since last month, when Singaporean officials invoked a contempt-of-court law after the outlet quoted case affidavits in a controversial extradition trial involving a Singaporean businessman.

The Administration of Justice Protection Act (AJPA), which carries fines up to $70,440 US (100,000 Singapore dollars) and jail terms of up to three years, has been invoked seven times since an October 2017 amendment expanded its definition of "scandalizing the judiciary" to include social media posts.

Domestic, international concern

Amnesty International and other rights groups have condemned these laws for being excessively vague and open to abuse.

"From our perspective, there shouldn't be any restriction on freedom of speech, whether its online or offline," Francisco Bencosme, the Asia Pacific advocacy manager for Amnesty International USA, told VOA.

"As long as these laws are in the books, you don't really have a free press."

Some independent journalists say the laws could be used to silence the media at key moments.

"I'm concerned about how POFMA will be used during the election period," Kirsten Han, former editor-in-chief of New Naratif, told VOA.

Election campaigning generally takes place in a condensed time frame in Singapore. If a journalist is issued a fake news directive during this speedy election period, Han said, they may not be able to resolve it before the vote.

In a sovereign city-state where ownership of mainstream media has been largely consolidated and publishing content requires a permit from the state Communications Ministry, the space for independent journalism is narrowing.

"Audiences are still by and large tuned into the state media," said Terry Xu, editor-in-chief of TOC, one of Singapore's oldest independent news websites, and one of the only to cover government malfeasance.

"Independent media like TOC does not have the resources to upscale its operation to be a viable competitor on coverage," Xu said.

Singapore's POFMA office did not respond to VOA's email requesting comment. The Ministry of Law's corporate communications division said it would look into VOA's queries but did not respond to a follow-up email.

Expanded contempt-of-court restrictions

Xu and TOC reporter Danisha Hakeem were both charged under Singapore's 2016 contempt-of-court law in March, after reporting on the trial of businessman Mohan Rajangam, who claims Singapore police unlawfully detained and extradited him to Malaysia without due process.

In a March 13 statement to TODAY Singapore, police said TOC's decision to quote affidavits violated the law, and "suggested a concerted effort by one or more person to publicly advocate for Mr. Mohan's cause, ahead of the hearing of the criminal revision."

Designed to beef up longstanding restrictions on criticizing Singapore's judicial system, the expanded contempt-of-court law, Human Rights Watch warned prior to its September 2016 adoption, would likely "become the next handy tool for the government to suppress critical speech in Singapore."

On the day the contempt of court charge was issued, police raided Xu's house and confiscated his computers.

"The contempt of court is undeniably a tool for the authorities to curb reportage and opinions on issues that warrant public awareness," said Xu, adding that once a person has been arrested under the act, they are effectively seen as guilty.

The only defense available is to prove "fair criticism," where the judiciary agrees there was no ulterior motive.

Beyond the contempt-of-court and fake news charges, Xu is also fighting a criminal defamation case from 2018.

Fake news law

Singapore's fake news law, however, contains some built-in recourse for those facing charges.

A parliamentary Selection Committee of Deliberate Online Falsehoods was formed in 2018 to calibrate the law and take into account the context of each violation and recommend strategies to the ministries and lawmaking bodies empowered to enforce the law.

Journalists, however, have criticized the committee for comprising only those empowered to enforce the law, while neglecting to acknowledge opposing views during open hearings.

"A select committee is supposed to be a committee of backbenchers who study evidence and make recommendations to the cabinet," Thum Ping Tjin, managing director of New Naratif, told VOA.

That ministers held seats on the legislative committee, he said, suggested officials weren't "really there to gather evidence but to justify a decision already taken."

"The only real limitation on the law is the benevolence or conscience of government ministers," he added. "Essentially, a government minister can be an arbiter of truth."

Increased directives

For independent news outlets with limited financial resources, multiple directives can mean bankruptcy.

Enacted October 2, POFMA was invoked five times in 2019, and 17 times since January 1, leading some to suspect the government may be keeping a closer eye on media ahead of elections.

"I don't think it's a coincidence," said Amnesty's Bencosme.

"I think the government is particularly sensitive about criticism of setting the election date," he said.

The prime minister has decided to press forward with June 1 elections despite the lockdown.

"From our perspective, the timing doesn't matter," Bencosme said. "At no point should [the government] be allowed to harass media outlets, activists or lawyers."

Although the legislation makes life harder for independent journalists, Xu of TOC believes the risk is worth it.

"There does not seem to be any room to maneuver legally," said Xu. "So one will have to bear the risk of personal indictment in order to create that space."

Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 158 out of 180 countries in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, in which 1 is considered the most free.