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Singapore committee proposes new govt powers to tackle ‘fake news’

/ 09:03 PM September 20, 2018

SINGAPORE — A Singapore parliamentary committee Thursday proposed broad government powers to combat “fake news” online, calling it a threat to national security, but rights groups denounced the measures as a threat to free speech.

The tightly controlled city-state is among several countries looking to rein in the spread of falsehoods over the internet, but critics have warned legislation could be used to exert further control over the media and clamp down on political rights.

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The committee, which held hearings on the issue in March, recommended the government have “powers to swiftly disrupt the spread and influence of online falsehoods.”

Its report proposed reforms to empower authorities to take down false reports, limit or block exposure to them, disrupt accounts run by bots or trolls and discredit sources of fake news.

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Government powers should apply to both open and closed platforms, the committee said, adding however that communications which are private and of limited circulation “will be respected.”

Legislation should also allow the filing of criminal cases against purveyors of falsehoods that cause serious harm, it said.

The committee said it had received evidence pointing to “foreign state-sponsored information campaigns” being carried out against Singapore, also warning that social faultlines in the multi-ethnic society could be exploited to sow discord.

“The problem is urgent, it is serious and I think our response has to be adequately urgent and serious as well,” said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, a committee member, as the report was released.

But human rights groups criticized the committee’s recommendations.

“The fundamental problem is the Singapore government has a very biased idea of what is a ‘falsehood’,” said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch.

“This committee was created to give political cover for what the Singapore government wanted to do anyway, which is use the excuse of ‘fake news’ to move full throttle to censor what Singaporeans see online,” he told AFP.

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The powers proposed by the committee could have a “devastating chilling effect on the freedom to inform”, said Daniel Bastard, Reporters Without Borders’ Asia-Pacific head.

After the report’s release, the government said in a statement it accepted the committee’s recommendations in principle and would look at their implementation.

The committee heard from dozens of individuals and organizations including internet giants Facebook and Google, but free-speech activists who appeared before the committee said they were harassed and misrepresented. /ee

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