Singapore, Malaysia clamp down on online falsehoods about coronavirus

Singapore evokes online falsehoods law while Malaysia makes arrests in their attempt to stem the spread of inaccurate reports concerning the coronavirus.

Both Singapore and Malaysia have moved to clamp down on inaccurate online reports about the coronavirus, with the latter making several arrests of individuals for posting and sharing such content. Singapore also vows to take "swift action" against the spread of such reports.

The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) on Wednesday said it, alongside the Royal Malaysia Police, had conducted four separate raids that resulted in the arrest of four individuals suspected of posting and distributing false reports about the outbreak, which had affected several nations in the region.

Three of the detainees allegedly uploaded inaccurate information on Facebook, while the fourth had shared such content on Twitter. 

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MCMC added that smartphones, SIM cards, and memory cards believed to have been used to upload the content were confiscated during the raids.

Detained under Malaysia's Communications and Multimedia Act, Section 233, for sharing offensive and menacing content, the four individuals -- if found guilty -- would face fines of up to RM50,000 ($12,247) or imprisonment of up to a year, or both. They also would be fined an additional RM1,000 ($245) for each day the alleged falsehood remained online after their conviction. 

The arrests had followed another on Tuesday when an individual in Selangor was detained for allegedly posting falsehoods about the virus on Facebook. 

The MCMC said it would continue to step up enforcement efforts, alongside the police, to "control the spreading of false news".

Meanwhile, Malaysia's southern neighbour evoked its Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) twice this week over false statements made about the coronavirus. 

Singapore's Minister for Health on Monday instructed the POFMA Office to issue a General Correction Direction to SPH Magazines, which operates the HardwareZone forum, over a post on the forum that falsely claimed a man had died in Singapore from the virus. 

A General Correction Direction can be issued to internet intermediaries, telecom and broadcast licensees, and permit holders of the country's Newspaper Printing Presses Act, requiring them to publish, broadcast, or transmit a correction notice to their users in Singapore. 

Under the directive, HardwareZone will be required to carry a correction notice to anyone in Singapore who accessed its online forum. 

A day later on Tuesday, the Minister for Transport instructed the POFMA Office to issue a Targeted Correction Direction to Facebook over falsehoods made by two users of the social media site, who falsely stated Woodlands MRT station was closed for disinfection due to a suspected case of the coronavirus. Such directives can be issued to internet intermediaries whose services are used to communicate falsehoods that affected public interest. They require these sites to communicate correction notices, by means of its service, to all users in Singapore who accessed the falsehood through its service. 

In this instance, Facebook had to carry a correction notice on the two posts that contained the falsehood, according to the POFMA Office. 

Commenting on the POFMA directive involving HardwareZone, Singapore's Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran noted that more than 4,600 unique visitors had read the false report before it was taken down. "We must take swift action against such falsehoods [or] there is a grave risk they will spread and cause panic among our citizens," Iswaran said

"And that is why we have POFMA and we will not hesitate to use the powers under the law to take action against any party that spreads such falsehoods."

He added that the objective was to ensure Singaporeans are provided with the facts to enable them to safely browse online platforms and distinguish truth from falsehoods.

The Singapore government last week ordered for local access to a website, operated by Malaysia-based Lawyers for Liberty, to be blocked for failing to comply with a correction directive issued under the POFMA. In response, the human rights group did not comply with the correction notice order and, instead, filed a motion in Kuala Lumpur's High Court against Singapore's Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam. The lawsuit claimed the Singapore government was attempting to "encroach upon" freedom of speech in Malaysia.

Under the POFMA, offenders could face up to three or five years' imprisonment, a SG$30,000 or SG$50,000 fine, or both. If bots or inauthentic accounts were used to amplify falsehoods, the potential penalties that could be applied would be doubled. Offending internet intermediaries, meanwhile, could face up to SG$1 million in fines, and also would receive a daily SG$100,000 fine for each day they continued to breach the Act after conviction.

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