SINGAPORE: The Government rejected Human Rights Watch's (HRW) criticisms on Wednesday (Apr 3) that the new Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill would "excessively restrict online freedom of speech".
The Bill was tabled in Parliament on Monday and sets out the tools available when falsehoods surface, such as issuing correction directions or, in more serious cases, take-down orders.
In response to the proposed law, HRW published an online post on Wednesday outlining various criticisms of the Bill, including that elements of the Bill were vague and that certain provisions under the law could be abused and used to silence people instead.
The Ministry of Law (MinLaw) rejected these claims and said that HRW's statements were part of "its long-standing practice of issuing biased and one-sided statements about Singapore".
It added that the human rights group had not taken part in the Select Committee despite offers to fund the organisation's travel costs or to use video-conferencing as an alternative.
"BROAD DEFINITION OF PUBLIC INTEREST":HRW
The HRW post on Wednesday said that the Bill was "sweepingly broad and threatens to stifle discussion on websites worldwide", and urged the Singapore Government to withdraw it.
The group also criticised that corrections could be made under the proposed law in the name of public interest. It said that the Bill "defines public interest broadly".
"The proposed law provides no guidance on how the minister will make a determination whether a statement is true or false or what standards are to be used in doing so," it said.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW's Asia division, added: “Singapore's ministers should not have the power to single-handedly decree what is true and what is false."
He called Singapore's concerns about online falsehoods "farcical".
The HRW post also touched on the issue of ministers being able to order the issuance of a "correction direction" and to put an end to circulating statements online.
"These provisions could easily be abused to silence or declare 'false' criticisms of government actions or policies, or criticism of individual ministers," HRW said.
Mr Robertson added that governments and businesses around the world should call on Singapore to "withdraw" the draft law immediately.
HRW STATEMENT "BIASED, ONE-SIDED": MINLAW
Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said on Tuesday that the Government will make the initial decision on falsehoods, but the courts will be the "final arbiters" on what is true or false.
MinLaw said in a strongly worded response on Wednesday that HRW's statement "is part of its long-standing practice of issuing biased and one-sided statements about Singapore".
MinLaw said that the human rights group had been invited to share its thoughts with the Select Committee, which was hearing evidence on this issue before the Bill was presented.
"It was an opportunity for HRW to give its views, and explain views it had previously expressed about free speech in Singapore, with local and international media present," the ministry said.
"HRW did not dare to come before the Select Committee because it knew that its views were biased and indefensible, and without any basis in fact.
"HRW’s initial willingness to appear before the Select Committee evaporated once it was informed that its representative should be prepared to answer questions about its views on Singapore."
The ministry said the group had "remained unwilling to appear" at the committee, despite the offers of travel funding or video-conferencing.
The ministry concluded that the organisation's "unsubstantiated allegations were exposed during the Select Committee hearing".
"The Singapore Government will generally not respond further to HRW until HRW confirms that it is prepared to defend its views," the MinLaw statement added.