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Singapore “Fake News” Law Goes Into Effect

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  • A new law has gone into effect in Singapore that aims to stop the spread of fake news by allowing members of the government to single-handedly decide what is and is not fake news and whether or not that content should be removed.
  • Critics have argued that the law is a blatant attempt to suppress free speech and stifle political dissent ahead of an election.
  • Big tech companies like Facebook and Google have also vocally opposed the law, and others have noted that one of the most concerning aspects is that it also applies to private messages sent on encrypted apps like WhatsApp.
  • Now, individuals can face up to 10 years in jail for sharing whatever the government deems “false information.”

“Fake News” Law

A controversial bill widely known as the “fake news” law officially went into effect in Singapore Wednesday.

The new law will aim to stop the spread of disinformation, or fake news, in the city-state. The legislation, which is officially called the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, was passed by Singapore’s Parliament back in May.

According to reports, it will now be illegal to spread any “false statements of fact” that would potentially pose a threat to “public tranquility,” and the “friendly relations of Singapore with other countries.” 

That may seem straightforward, but the law is controversial due to the fact that it gives government ministers the sole power to determine what is and is not fake news, with the threshold for determination also being quite low.

According to Channel News Asia, a minister simply needs to decide if something is a “falsehood,” which is defined as “a statement of fact that is false or misleading.” 

Then, if that minister says it is in the public interest to take action against the “falsehood,” they can order whatever content they determine to be fake news to be taken down or have a correction put up next to it.

Government ministers can also force tech companies like Facebook and Google to block accounts or websites they say are spreading false information.

While the government has said that anyone impacted by the law can file an appeal and that the appeals process will be quick and cheap, the consequences of being found guilty of posting false information are extremely high.

Under the law, companies that are found guilty of spreading fake news can face fines up to $1 million in Singapore dollars—which is about $722,000 in U.S. dollars—while individuals who are found guilty can face up to 10 years in prison.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said that the law is necessary “to hold online news sources and platforms accountable if they proliferate deliberate online falsehoods.”

“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,” he added.

Free Speech Concerns

However, critics of the law have said that it is a clear attempt to stifle free speech and dissent, with many arguing that it gives way too much power and authority to the government without providing oversight for government abuse.

To that point, opponents have pointed to Singapore’s mixed record on protecting press freedoms and political dissent.

In the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 151 out of 180 countries for press freedoms, meaning Singapore was ranked in one of the worst positions for a country that considers itself a democracy.

Notably, that also placed it below countries that are well-known for censoring any kind of political opposition, like Russia and Myanmar.

As a result, the activists, experts, and rights groups who have openly criticized the law worry that it will be used as a political tool for censorship.

Speaking to CNN, the Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, said the bill will be used for “political purposes,” noting that it comes right before elections set to happen in the next few months.

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

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

The International Commission of Jurists, a group of judges and lawyers, also echoed Robertson’s sentiment in a statement before the law passed, where they argued that the law would create “a real risk that the law will be misused to clamp down on opinions or information critical of the government.”

Even members of Parliament have spoken out against the bill, arguing it is an overextension of government power.

“To introduce such a bill is not what the government claims to defend democracy and public interest, it is more like the actions of a dictatorial government that will resort to any means to hold on to absolute power,” opposition lawmaker Low Thia Khiang said before the bill’s passage in May.

Tech Companies Opposition

Others have also argued the law will give Singapore too much power over big tech firms that have a large presence in Singapore. For example, Facebook, Twitter, and Google all have their Asian headquarters in the city-state.

“This law would give Singapore overwhelming leverage over the likes of Facebook and Twitter to remove whatever the government determines is ‘misleading,’” Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southeast Asia Nicholas Bequelin said in a statement. 

“This is an alarming scenario. While tech firms must take all steps to make digital spaces safe for everyone, this does not provide governments an excuse to interfere with freedom of expressionor rule over the news feed,” he added.

Google and Facebook both opposed the law when it was being debated in Parliament. After it was passed, Google said that the law will “hurt innovation and the growth of the digital information ecosystem.”

Others have also noted that one of the most concerning parts so the law is that it does not just apply to posts made publicly on Facebook or Twitter but that it can be applied to closed private messaging apps and chat groups like WhatsApp, which is extremely popular in Singapore.

That, in turn, means the government can not only read its citizen’s private messages but also potentially jail them for up to 10 years for content sent privately, maybe even to just one other person.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (VICE) (The Guardian)

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U.K. Report Faces Backlash for Saying the Country Is Not “Structurally Racist”

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  • A government report looking at racism in the U.K. claims the country isn’t “structurally racist.”
  • The report, published Wednesday, said other factors play a much larger role in the outcome of someone’s life, especially their economic status.
  • It also highlighted some successes the U.K. has experienced regarding race, particularly with narrowing pay gaps and increasing employment rates.
  • Many criticized the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government for releasing the document, saying that it failed to account for underlying racial factors in many of its findings.

Report Findings

The U.K. government and Prime Minister Boris Johnson are facing backlash after releasing a report on Wednesday that claims the country isn’t “structurally racist.”

The report, by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, didn’t say racism didn’t exist in the country or that it was a post-racial society yet, but it did say that system wasn’t rigged against minorities.

The 258-page report comes after a series of protests in the U.K. involving race, including demonstrations following the police killing of George Floyd in the U.S. It covered a wind range of topics, ultimately stating, “Most of the disparities we examined, which some attribute to racial discrimination, often do not have their origins in racism.”

For example, it claimed that the increased rate of COVID-19 deaths among Black and South Asian groups wasn’t due to racism, but “mainly due to an increased risk of exposure to infection,” by living in high-density urban areas and working higher risk jobs such as healthcare or transport. It also found that family structure and social class had a much bigger impact than race on how someone’s life turned out. It also highlighted that children from minority groups performed as well as, or better than, white pupils in schools. Additionally, it said pay disparities overall between minorities and the white majority shrunk down to 2.3%.

It did note that many communities are still “haunted” by “historic cases” of racism that create “deep mistrust” in British society, which could be a barrier to success. It added that “overt and outright racism persists” throughout the nation and particularly online. The Commission’s report additionally pushed for changes within the government itself, such as abandoning the term BAME (meaning Black and Minority Ethnic), saying it’s unhelpful in understanding disparities for specific ethnic groups by lumping them all together.

On top of this, it called for several measures, including a drive to keep users of Class B drugs (amphetamines, marijuana, codeine, and ketamine) away from the criminal justice system. It also proposed a plan to make online anonymous abuse harder to post, to stop the amplification of racists and their views.

Fierce Criticism

Despite these findings and recommendations, the report faced backlash from the opposition Labour Party, which felt that the government was “slamming the door” on people calling for action to tackle the issue. Other critics went on to point out that it also failed to answer some glaring racial disparities, like why Black and Bangladeshi people are disproportionately targeted by police in England and Wales. According to 2019-2020 data from the Home Office, for every 1,000 people, 54 Black people would be stopped and searched by police compared to six white.

The Runnymede Trust, a major race equality think tank, said it was “let down” by the report. Its Chief Executive, Dr. Halim Bergum, went on to heavily criticize it and claimed the idea of the U.K. not being institutionally racist is absurd. “Tell that to the black young mother who is four times more likely to die in childbirth than her young white neighbor.”

“You can’t tell them that, because they are dead,” he continued.

Even some of the commission’s statistical findings were criticized for lacking context. For instance, the report indicated that minorities were more likely to be front-line workers and said that increased exposure led them to contract COVID-19 more often.

Critics point out that they are in those roles because they’re usually insecure and low-paying jobs, and are often the only jobs available to poor minority groups which in turn keeps them trapped in poverty.

See what others are saying: (BBC) (The Guardian) (Financial Times)

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Japanese Court Rules Same-Sex Marriage Restrictions Unconstitutional

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  • On Wednesday, a Japanese district court in Sapporo, on the northern island of Hokkaido, ruled for the first time that restrictions against same-sex couples are unconstitutional.
  • The court found that while some provisions of the Japanese constitution enshrine marriage as a union between a male and female, they don’t preclude the possibility of same-sex marriages. It also argued that other provisions ensure equal rights under the law for all citizens.
  • Other current cases in Japan deal with the same issue regarding same-sex marriage as well as the need to pass legislation on the matter.
  • LGBTQ+ people don’t face widespread repression in Japan, but also don’t have the same rights hetero couples enjoy, such as medical visitation rights, the ability to adopt, and spousal income tax deductions.

Editor’s Note: The Japanese government has asked Western outlets to adhere to Japanese naming conventions. To that end, Japanese names will be written as Family Name followed by Given Name.

Legal Victory for Same-Sex Japanese Couples

For the first time in Japanese history, a major court ruled on Tuesday that the government’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriages is unconstitutional.

This case is the first to be decided on out of multiple similar ones brought by 13 couples who coordinated to sue the government on Valentine’s Day 2019 in Sapporo, Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. During proceedings, the government relied on language from Article 24 of the constitution, which states that “Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis.”

The court agreed with the argument; however, it also agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that while Article 24 might apply to hetero couples, it doesn’t preclude the right for same-sex couples to marry. Ultimately, the court found the couples’ argument that the government violated Article 14, which guarantees equality under the law, the most compelling.

Following the decision, supporters and the plaintiffs held celebrations outside the courthouse. “My tears didn’t stop flowing. The court took us seriously,” said a plaintiff in his 40s, who uses Kunimi Ryosuke as his pseudonym.

According to a government official, the Justice Ministry will now study the details of the decision and pending lawsuits around the country, although it should be noted that the ruling doesn’t make same-sex marriage legal across all of Japan. Despite lacking widespread authority to change the law, the ruling does hold weight among the other district courts that could lead to changes in the law itself.

Unfortunately for same-sex couples, that process may take some time, as the political will to officially write this into law is “lukewarm at best,” according to the Japan Times. Currently, Japan is the only G7 member state that doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage.

Growing Recognition in Japan

Currently, LGTBQ+ rights in Japan are varied. While LGTBQ+ people aren’t specifically targeted and repressed under the law, such as in Saudi Arabia, they aren’t given the same privileges and rights as hetero couples. Prominent examples include the struggle same-sex couples face to be granted medical visitation rights, the ability to make medical decisions for unconscious partners, co-parenting rights, and spousal income tax deductions.

All of this was brought up by Judge Takebe Tomoko Wednesday morning, who admonished the government for not offering “even a degree” of marital benefits to same-sex couples. Local municipalities have tried to rectify the situation by issuing “partnership certificates” to same-sex couples, which grant some of these rights. However, without a national policy, the rights are limited and can often be ignored by institutions.

Despite the drawbacks and ultimately limited nature of the win, activists have still hailed it as a massive victory for LGBTQ+ people in the nation not only because it backs up their right to marry and maintain the same rights as heterosexual individuals, but also because it draws more awareness and gives momentum to a movement that has slowly been gaining ground in the traditionally conservative country.

See What Others Are Saying: (Japan Times) (Kyodo News) (NPR)

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