Singapore’s Fake News Law Accompanies Global Decline in Press Freedom

A “fake news” law passed in Singapore last week is marking a change to the country’s press freedoms. With the new law, journalists and online media platforms are facing additional forms of suppression in the city-state.

On October 2, Singapore’s “Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation” bill took full effect, cracking down on freedom of speech. Under the new bill, it is illegal to spread “false statements of fact” under any circumstances—justified by an alleged need to maintain public order.

“I don’t see our legislation as being in any way restrictive of free speech,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told NPR in May. Critics accused the Prime Minister of passing the law to benefit his party in the March 2020 elections. Even with rumors of Prime Minister Lee stepping down, Lee’s People Action Party (PAP) will still be expected to dominate over the republic. Regardless of whether Lee leads the party, the party’s ideals are expected to continue on through members of PAP.

Activists in Singapore agree that the laws will inhibit public discussions and limit journalists in a country seemingly headed toward more tyranny. Kristen Han, the Singapore-based chief editor of the online news site New Naratif, said in an email to NPR: “What worries me is that it would likely further entrench the culture of self-censorship, not just among journalists but among Singaporeans in general.”

Han has also tweeted about her disapproval of the matter over the past few days as the law was put into effect. 

The punishment for those who do not follow the new regulations is a 50,000 SGD ($36,000) fine and up to five years in prison. Activists are also concerned with the government controlling tech firms in the area. Google, Facebook and Twitter, all have an international presence in the city and have been equally affected by the new bill. The penalty for companies found guilty of “fake news” content is a fine of 1 million SGD ($735,000). According to Reuters, activists are worried that the law could give the government the power to decide if material posted online is true or false.

This latest bill follows legal threats made by the Prime Minister against the media as well as existing laws in Singapore that constrain journalists and media outlets in the country. Lee has allowed authorities to arrest journalists on questionable charges, leading them to use an OB Marker—an unspoken agreement that certain issues cannot be reported  As of 2019, Singapore was ranked by Reporters Without Borders as 151 of 180 countries in the organization’s World Press Freedom Index.

Concerns are not just aimed toward journalists and others in the media, but to all Singaporeans, as online expression is more broadly limited under the new law. All internet freedoms will be taken into consideration as the  definition of ‘truth’ is now debatable for the government to decide.

Singapore is just one of many countries passing laws to limit the power of the press.

Turkey, for instance, has had its share of newly updated laws and amendments surrounding the censorship of the country. Turkey has a Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) that regulates and monitors the Turkish law of all radio and television sanctions. The Radio and Television Supreme Council has been in control of the Turkish media services since 1994 and has expanded their reign on the country over time. 

In 2016 alone, an estimated 150 media outlets were blocked and closed from the Turkish browser, including YouTube, Twitter and Wikipedia. In March 2018, the RTÜK passed a law that added extensive guidelines, including that service providers planning to publish broadcasts must obtain a license from the RTÜK. In August, regulations were introduced for on-demand services that mandated them to follow the 2018 censorship laws, thus affecting Netflix and other online content providers.

The imprisonment and killing of journalists have been a regular occurrence with 30 confirmed deaths of both media personnel and journalists recorded in Turkey since 1992. Turkey is the number one jailer of journalists in the world, with 68 journalists detained currently. The risks journalists endure in Turkey have gotten more severe and  the country is ranked 157th out of 180 on theReporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.

In 2015, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published an annual index of the most censored countries in the world. This statistic is built off of attacks on the press. In 2015, Ethiopia was placed fourth in the list of top ten most censored countries. Four years later, Ethiopia has been removed from the most censored list and has made advancements in its policies and laws surrounding free speech.

Despite signs of progress, Ethiopia went down 40 rankings in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index.

Ten independent journalists and bloggers were imprisoned in Ethiopia in 2014 alone. All the dangers and increasing challenges for journalists in the country drove an estimated 30 journalists into exile in 2014, an increase from the two previous years.

With each journalist sentenced to prison, Ethiopia takes another step further from freedom of the press and democratic society,” East Africa Representative Tom Rhodes told CPJ in 2014.

The shift in Ethiopian policy toward press freedoms and reforms began with the resignation of former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn Boshe. The election of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was the country’s first step in a new direction after years of conflicts. With the appointment of of Sahle-Work Zewde—Ethiopia’s first female President—Prime Minister Ahmed has surrounded his country with amplitude of new opportunities and a clear change in times. Both of these new innovative voices in the head of the Ethiopian government have swiftly made changes and resolved conflicts from within the country outward.

An article in The Economist, pointed out that, “For the first time in 13 years there are no journalists in prison; no fewer than 23 publications and six privately-owned satellite channels have been given licenses by the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority since July.”

The lift of bans on Ginbot 7, Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) were Prime Minister Ahmed’s first public changes on privately owned publications. Activists and organizers halted the bans and demanded the return of  journalists exiled to Ethiopia.

The state of emergency lifted and the long war between Eritrea ended all within months of Abiy Ahmed’s term as Ethiopia’s Prime Minister.

Last May, Ethiopia hosted the 26th World Press Freedom Day (WPFD). WPFD is the celebration of the  principles of press freedom and is used to pay tribute to journalists who have been killed while practicing free speech. It also informs citizens of the violations of press freedoms worldwide.

At WPFD, Prime Minister Abiy said, “The symbolism of this grand gesture is even more important – given that only one year ago Ethiopia was labeled as Africa’s foremost jailer of journalists and one of the most repressive environments in the world for the functioning of independent news.”

Despite these symbolic actions, the Singaporean and Turkish governments are still actively suppressing free speech.

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