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Singapore Prime Minister defends ‘fake news’ law

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Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shakes with Malaysian counterpart Mahathir Mohamad. AFP

Singapore Prime Minister defends ‘fake news’ law

Singapore’s leader insisted on Tuesday his government’s proposed fake news laws were a “step forward” in fighting online falsehoods after they sparked criticism from press freedom groups and tech giants.

But his Malaysian counterpart Mahathir Mohamad, who has long had a prickly relationship with the neighbouring city-state, told a joint press conference he was worried that governments could abuse such laws.

Singapore – widely criticised for restricting free speech and clamping down on political rights – last week unveiled tough measures to fight fake news.

These included powers for ministers to order sites like Facebook, Google and Twitter to put warnings next to posts authorities deem false, and in extreme cases get them removed, as well as fines and jail terms in serious cases.

Speaking during a visit to Malaysia, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that fake news was a “serious problem” and other countries including France, Germany and Australia were legislating to combat it.

Singapore’s proposed laws “will be a significant step forward”, he added. “We’ve deliberated on this now for almost two years … What we have done has worked for Singapore, it is our objective to continue to do things which will work for Singapore.”

Rights groups warn Singapore’s proposed fake news laws could be used to stifle online discussion, are too vague and may be used to target government critics, while Facebook and other tech giants have expressed concerns.

But Mahathir, speaking alongside Lee at a press conference, noted that his government planned to repeal a widely criticised Malaysian law aimed at combating fake news.

“When we have a law that prevents people from airing their views, then we are afraid that the government itself may abuse the law,” he told reporters in the administrative capital Putrajaya.

Mahathir’s administration is pushing to repeal the legislation, which was pushed through parliament by the previous, corruption-plagued regime, but efforts have stalled after the opposition-controlled upper house refused to back its abolition.

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