There has been much debate about the new laws Singapore is introducing to curb deliberate online falsehoods, which can cause much harm and chaos. Technology and social media companies have shown they cannot act expeditiously to prevent harm caused by fake news, so the government’s move to introduce the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill is timely. Public reaction however has been mixed, with concerns centred largely on the powers vested in ministers, the speed of appeal, the legal recourse that those deemed guilty of spreading online falsehoods have, as well the how harsh the punishment meted out to them should be. Let’s consider each of these in turn. Singapore introduces anti-fake news law to combat misinformation The proposed law gives Singapore ministers (any minister, actually) the right to decide what is true and what is fake, and issue a variety of orders, such as directing online news sites to publish corrections to falsehoods or even take down an article. Given that falsehoods can spread quickly to undermine social fabric, it is practical for the ministers to make the first judgment of what is fake news to quickly nip such instances in the bud. It is the process beyond the first decision that has raised some concerns. For instance, an appeal against the minister’s order must be made to him or her. This effectively has the minister sitting as a judge on an appeal against his or her earlier decision, which makes it quite impossible to avoid the appearance of bias. Even if most can agree that the government will not misuse the law as a political tool, it is our collective responsibility to enact legislation that cannot be abused by the authorities for political purposes, whether now or in the future. The bill provides an eventual right to appeal to the courts, but the current perception is that this requires time and much financial resources. Some have suggested the government could consider convening an independent appeals committee of publicly respected men and women, to distance the appeal process from the minister. Of course, the independence of such a committee may be questioned, especially if the committee is appointed by the government. But this would still be better than having the appeal considered by the minister who made the decision in the first place. Explainer: fake news in Asia If the government’s preference is to entrench the courts as the next step of appeal, it should look at setting up a fast-track court process after the minister’s initial decision. Such a legal process should be simple to understand, fast and cost only a nominal amount. Importantly, this will assure the public that the state takes the legal rights of its citizens seriously. Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam’s assurance that it will be “fast and relatively inexpensive” to challenge ministers’ decisions on online falsehoods is reassuring, but the legislation must reflect this. How can this be done? A good starting point is to consider making the appeal form a single-page online document drafted in simple English that most Singaporeans would be able to fill up without a lawyer. Shanmugam did in fact say the government may allow individuals to act without engaging lawyers. Should a person filing an appeal need a lawyer but cannot afford representation, he or she should have access to legal aid. This is perhaps where the Law Society can play a role. Beyond the appeal process, another concern regarding the new laws pertains to the punishments to transgressors of the anti-fake news law. The government has stressed that the laws are meant to deal with “false statements of fact” and not opinions. Yet there are still concerns that harsh punishments could have a chilling effect on those who may otherwise be willing to express contrarian views on matters of public interest. As the fake news bill is intended to protect individuals and society from harm, the act of taking down content, and furthermore, getting the party who removed it to comment on the taking down, should be the most important thing. If the punishment includes heavy fines and jail terms, then this may cause people to not speak out at all, indirectly curtailing the freedom of speech. The outcome of another round of consultation with the public, civil society, academia, and all political parties could well result in legislation that is robust and well-accepted. Since Singapore is among the first in the developed world to enact these anti-fake news laws, I suggest we not have onerous punishments for first-time offenders, and implement punishments with a light touch. Finding the right balance between speaking out and the freedom of speech and the cost of spreading fake news is important. Without amendments, the proposed anti-fake news law would be structured in a manner that is tilted towards creating some fear that may curb freedom of expression. I hope the right balance can be found when parliament meets next Monday for a debate on this bill. Academics concerned Singapore’s fake news laws will stifle freedom A parliamentary select committee had sought public input before the anti-fake news bill was drafted. Now that it is ready, it may be useful to have some public forums on the final product. The outcome of another round of consultation with the public, civil society, academia, and all political parties could well result in legislation that is robust and well-accepted. Sending the bill to another select committee would be useful. Hopefully, all parties can get together to take a deeper look at the proposed laws and make practical recommendations. It is wise to take the time to get this far-reaching bill right before it becomes law. Done right, this is an ideal opportunity for Singapore to take a leadership role in combating the spread of fake news. Done in a wrong way, there is a risk of people losing trust in the government, despite its best intentions in tackling this challenging issue. The government should not take the concerns raised lightly as the stakes are high and an overreaching law will have long-lasting effects.