Singapore parliament debates foreign interference bill
- Experts worry about general measures of the bill
- Singapore says it is vulnerable to foreign interference
- Discussions, advocacy by citizens of Singapore not covered – government
SINGAPORE, Oct. 4 (Reuters) – Singapore’s parliament on Monday began discussing a bill to tackle foreign interference that has raised concern among opposition parties, rights groups and experts as to its broad scope and the limits of judicial review.
The small open city-state, which says it is vulnerable to foreign interference, has targeted fake news with sweeping law in 2019, and joins countries like Australia and Russia that have passed laws in recent years to deter foreign interference.
It allows authorities to compel the internet, social media service providers and website operators to provide user information, block content, and remove apps, and is likely to be adopted because the ruling party has a majority in parliament.
But some critics say its broad language risks capturing even legitimate activity, while rights group Reporters Without Borders has said the law could trap independent media.
“The powers of pre-emption (…) and the broad scope of the provisions could potentially provide the government with important means to curb legitimate activities of civil society,” said Eugene Tan, professor of law at the University of Management of Singapore.
“FICA has the makings of being the most intrusive law in the law collection,” he said of the bill, which will be officially known as the Foreign Interference Countermeasures Act (FICA).
In response to a Reuters query, the Home Office said the bill did not cover the discussions or advocacy of Singaporean citizens, nor the wide range of their collaborations with foreigners.
But orders can be issued if a citizen acts for a foreign principal in a manner contrary to the public interest, he added, saying the law sets clear thresholds.
The bill allows the Home Secretary to order public interest investigations to “expose hostile information campaigns” based on suspicion of foreign interference.
Instead of a public hearing, an independent panel, chaired by a judge, will hear appeals against the minister’s rulings, a decision the government deems necessary because the issues may involve sensitive information with national security implications.
As the use of social media and communication technologies increases, pundits and opposition parties have come to agree on the need to counter a growing threat of foreign interference in internal affairs.
Critics said Russia’s Sovereign Internet Law of 2019 leaves authorities with discretion to limit access to resources and information, while Australian laws target lobbyists in foreign countries.
Singapore’s Home Secretary, K. Shanmugam, on Monday in parliament cited examples of surges in online activity during 2016 and 2017, as well as 2018 and 2019, aimed at influencing sentiment or to create artificial impressions of Singapore’s positions, but he did not name any. countries.
In 2016, Singapore went through a turbulent time in its relations with China over Taiwan and the disputed South China Sea, while 2018 saw it embroiled in an airspace and maritime border dispute with neighboring Malaysia.
Singapore’s bill is unique in targeting foreign interference via the Internet as well as individuals, but not as broad as US or Australian laws on transparency and regulation of individuals, Chong Ja Ian, political analyst at the University Singapore National.
In addition to aiming to remove content that threatens immediate and significant harm, it places obligations on those considered “politically important persons”, who are directly involved in Singapore’s political processes, such as Members of Parliament.
Others, however, may be included in the category if their activities are oriented towards a political goal.
The main opposition party, the Workers’ Party, called for changes to the bill, such as reducing the scope of executive powers to reduce the risk of abuse of power. Read more
Previously, the Home Office (MHA) said the bill would not apply to persons or foreign publications “who report or comment on Singapore politics in an open, transparent and accountable manner.”
Human rights groups had warned that the 2019 fake news law could undermine free speech. The government said legitimate criticism and freedom of expression are unaffected.
Reporting by Aradhana Aravindan in Singapore; Editing by Clarence Fernandez
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