SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Singapore’s lone opposition party in parliament has said it will oppose a controversial fake news bill that has been criticized by rights groups, journalists and tech firms as a debate over the proposed legislation entered a second day on Wednesday.
The move is unlikely to derail the law, seen by some as giving government too much power and hindering free speech, although parliament is set to consider amendments that could narrow its scope before a final vote expected as soon as Wednesday.
“The Workers’ Party opposes this bill,” opposition leader Pritam Singh told parliament on Tuesday. “We do not agree that the executive should be the initial decision maker on matters surrounding false statements of fact.”
The Workers’ Party only holds six of 89 elected seats in parliament, with the rest held by the People’s Action Party which has governed since Singapore’s independence from Britain more than 50 years ago.
Singapore is ranked 151 among 180 countries rated in the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders, a non-government group that promotes freedom of information, below the likes of Russia and Myanmar.
The draft law seeks to combat fake news by requiring online media platforms to carry corrections or remove content, with penalties for perpetrators running as high as prison terms of up to 10 years or fines up to S$1 million ($734,200).
Law Minister K. Shanmugam told parliament the legislation should not be feared.
“Free speech should not be affected by this bill. We are talking here about falsehoods. We are talking about bots… trolls… fake accounts and so on,” Shanmugam said.
“The working of a democratic society depends on the members of that society being informed and not misinformed.”
Three nominated members of parliament, who are appointed directly by the president and not affiliated to political parties, have proposed amendments to the draft law.
They say these provisions more clearly define its scope and require the government to explain its decisions when exercising its powers.
But the International Commission of Jurists, an association made up of senior judges, lawyers and legal scholars who campaign to uphold human rights standards in law around the world, said this was still not enough.
“The ICJ welcomes any amendments to the draft bill that temper the over-broad powers it gives to the government… However, the protections that have been proposed are insufficient,” ICJ’s Asia Pacific director, Frederick Rawski, said in an email to Reuters.
“The severe penalties proposed under the bill, its broad scope of territorial jurisdiction and the absence of clear protections for expression pose real risks that it will be misused to clamp down on the free exchange and expression of opinions and information.”
The wealthy city-state says it is vulnerable to fake news because of its position as a global financial hub, its mixed ethnic and religious population and widespread internet access.