CNN  — 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he welcomed more regulation of big tech, but he probably didn’t mean this.

A new bill in Singapore – which had its first reading Monday – would give the government sweeping new powers to crack down on so-called “fake news” and hit Facebook and other social media companies with big fines if they don’t comply with censorship orders.

Under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, it will be illegal to spread “false statements of fact” in Singapore, where that information is “prejudicial” to Singapore’s security, public safety, “public tranquility,” or to the “friendly relations of Singapore with other countries,” among numerous other topics.

Individuals found guilty of contravening the act can face fines of up to 50,000 SGD (over $36,000) and, or, up to five years in prison. If the “fake news” is posted using “an inauthentic online account or controlled by a bot,” the total potential fine rises to 100,000 SGD (around $73,000), and, or, up to 10 years in prison.

Companies such as Facebook, if found guilty of spreading “fake news,” can face fines of up to 1 million SGD (around $735,000).

What exactly constitutes “a false statement of fact” is to be defined by the government, which can then choose to issue a demand for a correction, removal of the offending post, or to pursue legal action against the poster or social network.

Singapore has a poor record on press freedom. In the most recent world rankings on press freedom by watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Singapore placed 151 out of 180 countries, among the worst positions for a country that considers itself a democracy.

Human Rights Watch Asia deputy director Phil Robertson told CNN he expected the new bill – which comes ahead of elections later this year – to be used for “political purposes.”

“The Singapore government has a long history of calling everything they disagree with as false and misleading,” he said.

The bill is supported by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and is almost certain to pass the ruling-party dominated Parliament.

As well as general free speech concerns, it will also raise serious questions for international tech and media companies which call Singapore home, including Facebook, Google and the BBC, all of which have their Asia headquarters in the city-state. While CNN has no editorial presence in Singapore, its parent company WarnerMedia has offices in the city.

That international presence could make those companies vulnerable to pressure from the Singapore government, and potentially put employees at risk of prosecution should they not comply with the new law.

Facebook’s director of public policy for Asia-Pacific, Simon Milner, said that while the company in principle supported regulation on spreading online falsehoods, it had concerns at the law’s granting of “broad powers to the Singapore executive branch to compel us to remove content they deem to be false and proactively push a government notification to users.”

CNN has reached out to Google and the BBC for comment.

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‘Serious problem’

The new Singaporean bill follows a pattern of governments around the world, but particularly in Asia, seizing on legitimate concerns about fake news and other issues to pass new laws critics say are designed to clamp down on online expression.

In January, Fiji enacted a new law on online safety critics say is a “Trojan horse” for censorship of the internet, while since 2017 in the Philippines, Cambodia and Malaysia concerns about “fake news” have been used to justify new crackdowns on media. Malaysia has since repealed its fake news law, but the other countries continue to defend them as necessary for protecting citizens online. China too, the world’s most sophisticated censor of the internet, has used concerns about online misinformation to defend its own sweeping controls on free speech.

Speaking Friday at an anniversary event for Channel NewsAsia, Singapore PM Lee said fake news was a “serious problem for many countries.”

He defended the new law as giving the government the “power to hold online news sources and platforms accountable if they proliferate deliberate online falsehoods.”

“This includes requiring them to show corrections or display warnings about online falsehoods, so that readers or viewers can see all sides, and make up their own minds about the matter. In extreme and urgent cases, the legislation will also require online news sources to take down fake news before irreparable damage is done,” he said.

“If we do not protect ourselves, hostile parties will find it a simple matter to turn different groups against one another and cause disorder in our society.”

Lee did not mention the potential prison sentences or large fines for spreading “fake news,” or the concerns international media might have about operating in Singapore under the new law.

The prime minister’s office and the Singapore Ministry of Law did not respond to requests for comment on this article.

K. Shanmugam, Singapore’s law minister, said in a press briefing that the government would protect free speech and said takedown orders would be rare, according to the Wall Street Journal. “I think the reality of falsehoods and hate speech and harmful content on the internet is a reality that is here to stay,” he said. “We have to deal with it as best as we can.”

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during the plenary session on the opening day of Argentina G20 Leaders' Summit 2018 at Costa Salguero on November 30, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

‘Far-reaching’ legislation

While Lee and other government officials have defended the bill as necessary for protecting Singaporeans online, it has been met with massive resistance from tech, media and human rights groups.

In a statement, Jeff Paine, managing director of the Asia Internet Coalition – whose members include Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and other major tech firms – said the bill “gives the Singapore government full discretion over what is considered true or false.”

“As the most far-reaching legislation of its kind to date, this level of overreach poses significant risks to freedom of expression and speech, and could have severe ramifications both in Singapore and around the world.”

In a submission to Parliament, Singapore Press Holdings, the country’s largest media organization, warned that a broad interpretation of “fake news” could could lead to “fears among citizens about freely expressing their opinions or engaging in robust and constructive debates, or even to self-censorship by news outlets wary of falling foul of the law.”

Kirsten Han, editor of the South East Asia-focused news site New Naratif, warned “the (anti-fake news) bill is really broad, granting sweeping powers to the government with limited checks and balances.”

“It has the effect of allowing the government to be the arbiter of truth, if they want to,” she wrote in a newsletter Monday.

The New Naratif says it has faced significant pressure from the Singapore government, which last year refused to allow it to register as a private company, due to funding it receives from overseas, which the government said would be contrary to national interests.

Speaking to CNN, Han said the government had wanted to pass such legislation for some time.

“The problems that tech companies have had with fake news and hate speech have given them a good opportunity to justify the need for such laws,” she said.

She predicted that the way the law is drafted could muzzle many ordinary Singaporeans even if their posts didn’t technically contravene it.

“(The bill) grants ministers so much discretion to demand corrections, takedowns and access to be blocked.” Han said. Under the law, people are able to appeal the order, but Han expressed concern about ordinary people’s ability to afford such legal cases.

“How many Singaporeans will have the resources or desire to take the matter to court and get the (government’s) direction overturned and a Facebook post/article/blog post reinstated?”

Singapore's Supertree Grove seen during a light show. The city state prides itself on its tech savviness, but this often goes hand in hand with heavy censorship.

What censorship?

Singapore has long controlled both the media and online expression, despite the city’s courting of international tech firms.

“Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s government reacts quickly to criticism from journalists and does not hesitate to sue them, apply pressure to make them unemployable, or even force them to leave the country,” media watchdog RSF said in a recent report on the country.

“The Media Development Authority has the power to censor all forms of journalistic content. Defamation suits are common in the city-state and may sometimes be accompanied by a charge of sedition, which is punishable by up to 21 years in prison.”

Last year, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), described a report on press freedom in Singapore by Human Rights Watch as a “type of deliberate falsehood” and “an example of how false and misleading impressions can be created by a selective presentation of facts, designed to promote an underlying agenda.” That agenda, PAP said, was “to change Singapore’s society – in the ways it desires.”

The statements were made in a submission to the select committee which drafted the new anti-fake news bill. Under the new law, there’s concern that future HRW reports deemed to be spreading “deliberate falsehoods” could see the group targeted, the perfect way for Singapore to defend against the group’s claims that it enacts “severe restrictions on free speech.”

Phil Robertson, the HRW director, told CNN that if the bill passes into law in its current form, “I expect that they will go after us.”