Fake news laws may ‘catch on’ during coronavirus

Such legislation could curtail academic freedom, say scholars

April 6, 2020
Singapore

The prevalence of fake news related to the coronavirus could be used by countries to justify new misinformation legislation that could harm academic freedom, scholars have warned.

Earlier this month, Singapore’s communications and information minister S. Iswaran said that the use of fake news during the pandemic strengthened the government’s decision last year to introduce the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma).

“Our Covid-19 experience has reinforced, if anything, that conviction and certainly we have no reason to question the reason for doing so,” he said, as reported by The Straits Times.

“In a situation like an epidemic, it is essential that our population stays calm, gets advice and information from reliable sources, and is able to then take appropriate measures. In that context, we have found Pofma, the tools and also the...authority that is vested in the executive to exercise those tools to have been very effective.”

Pofma is more draconian than other fake news legislation, including maximum penalties of 10 years’ imprisonment or a S$1 million (£580,000) fine, and scholars fear that it may be used to censor academic papers and university teaching materials.

It is now thought that other countries that were considering similar laws are using the coronavirus to justify their implementation.

A senator in Nigeria, which is debating a bill inspired by Singapore’s legislation, told the public earlier this month to see fake news as a virus in need of containment, according to local reports. Meanwhile, Thailand, which has arrested several people for allegedly spreading fake news about the coronavirus outbreak, cited Singapore as a model for its Anti-Fake News Center.

Linda Lim, professor emerita of corporate strategy and international business at the University of Michigan and a critic of Singapore’s Pofma, said that she was “quite concerned” that other countries would also attempt to copy Singapore’s law.

“Because of Singapore’s overall good reputation in the international community, including for being ‘business-friendly’ and so far bearing no adverse consequences (internationally) for the law, other countries may understandably be tempted to emulate it as a de facto precedent,” she said.

“In a worst-case scenario, an authoritarian government could use it as one tool in an arsenal that it widely uses to suppress free speech, discouraging academic research into controversial subjects or that might have outcomes that reflect poorly on the government.”

Nuurrianti Jalli, senior lecturer in media warfare at Malaysia’s Universiti Teknologi MARA, said that misinformation must be “handled…particularly currently amid the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak” but existing communication law “would suffice to remind the public of the ramifications of sharing false content”.

In countries that are “authoritarian” or have “weak democracy…enacting such a law gives the government power to suppress freedom of expression and silence critics systematically,” she said.

“The situation is hard as is. Adding a ‘fake news’ law to the equation will further challenge the academic freedom in these countries,” she added.

The Malaysian government, then led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), introduced a widely criticised Anti-Fake News Law in 2018, but it was repealed the same year by the new Pakatan Harapan coalition government.

But Ross Tapsell, senior lecturer and researcher at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, specialising in Southeast Asian media, said that a fake news law could soon be back on the table in Malaysia.

“Due to an internal party coup in 2020, UMNO is now back in power with a newly formed coalition and presumably will look to do something in this space,” he said.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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