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Reactions trail Singapore’s controversial social media law copied by Nigerian lawmaker

ON TUESDAY, November 5, a bill to regulate the social media was introduced to the Nigerian Senate and the sponsor, Mohammed Sani Musa, lawmaker representing the Niger East senatorial district, has been called out for copying the document word-for-word from a similar law in Singapore. The ICIR takes a look at some of the reactions to the parent law.

The bill has outlawed the transmission of false information likely to be prejudicial to security, prejudicial to public health, prejudicial to Nigeria’s friendly relations with other countries, influence electoral outcomes, incite enmity, or diminish public confidence in the government.

It proposes that anyone who violates this shall pay a fine of N300,000, spend three years in prison, or be ordered to do both, and also asks that the government be empowered to block internet access to certain end-users.

The bill has been criticised by many Nigerians, especially as Nigeria already has a reputation for arbitrarily arresting and prosecuting journalists using the 2015 cyber-crime law. The bill’s sponsor, however, appears buoyed by the fact that Nigeria is not the first country to consider enacting such laws.

“While the phenomenon of internet falsehood and manipulation is a serious global challenge, countries like Singapore have taken measures to curb the proliferation of fake news and disinformation with the passage into law of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019, which is aimed at protecting society from fake reports that harm public interests,” he said while soliciting support for the bill’s second reading on Wednesday.

He added: “So many other countries have adopted this bill and they are guiding on how the use of internet will be.”

The lawmaker did not, however, mention that the Singaporean law passed in May, and which took effect last month, is controversial and has been widely criticised.

The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), for example, observed in May that the vague definitions of such terms as “false statement” and “public interest” in the bill leave room for a “highly subjective application”. It also pointed out the lack of explicit protection for critical opinion and satire.

“The overwhelming consensus is that this Bill will impact freedom of expression and curtail the rights of individuals, Singaporean or otherwise, to freely express opinions and participate in informed discussions, even debates, that are necessary to ensure executive transparency and accountability,” AIC managing director Jeff Paine said.

“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.”

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The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) warned that the law could be subjected to abuse.

The commission’s Asia Pacific director, Frederick Rawski wrote to Reuters: “The severe penalties proposed under the bill, its broad scope of territorial jurisdiction and the absence of clear protections for expression pose real risks that it will be misused to clamp down on the free exchange and expression of opinions and information.”

Also, Human Rights Watch has observed the law “provides a carte blanche for Singapore ministers” to pull down any content online they consider false regardless of where it is circulated to.

Phil Robertson, the deputy director in Asia, told NPR that all independent media organisations in the country only publish online, adding that the country “whitewashes bad news and persecutes activists and whistleblowers who call the preferred image of Singapore into question”.

“Singapore’s new ‘fake news’ law is a disaster for online expression by ordinary Singaporeans, and a hammer blow against the independence of many online news portals they rely on to get real news about their country beyond the ruling People’s Action Party political filter,” Robertson also wrote on Twitter.

“Singapore’s leaders have crafted a law that will have a chilling effect on internet freedom throughout Southeast Asia, and likely start a new set of information wars as they try to impose their narrow version of “truth” on the wider world.”

Speaking to Reuters in May, Google said that it remained concerned that the law “will hurt innovation and the growth of the digital information ecosystem”. “How the law is implemented matters,” the company added. 

Facebook has also expressed concern “with aspects of the law that grant 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”.

Singapore is currently ranked 151 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index.

“Despite the ‘Switzerland of the East’ label often used in Singapore government propaganda,” notes Reporters Without Borders, “the city-state does not fall far short of China when it comes to suppressing media freedom.”

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The Nigerian Senate had, in late 2015, proposed a similar law to regulate publications and conversations on the internet, triggering public outcry. President Muhammadu Buhari, then, affirmed his commitment to freedom of speech and assured Nigerians he would not sign any law that is inconsistent with the constitution.

Eventually, the bill was withdrawn following a report from the Senate Committee on Human Rights and Legal Matters that said the law does not only violate existing laws but is likely to infringe on the rights of citizens.

It remains to be seen if the new bill is going to suffer a similar fate. For now, the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights, and Legal Matters has decided to set the ball rolling later this week with a public hearing.

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