Singapore’s prime minister Friday rejected allegations the city-state’s new law to combat « fake news » is aimed at stifling free speech, following criticism from rights groups and tech giants.

The legislation, approved by parliament last week, gives government ministers powers to order social media sites such as Facebook to put warnings next to posts authorities deem to be false, and in extreme cases get them taken down.

If an action is judged to be malicious and damaging to Singapore’s interests, companies could be hit with fines of up to Sg$1 million ($730,000), while individuals face up to 10 years in jail.

The laws have sparked outrage from rights groups, who fear they could be used to stifle online discussion, tech companies with major bases in the financial hub, and some journalists’ organisations.

But Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong defended the measures.

« I don’t see our legislation as being in any way restrictive of free speech, » he said at a news conference with visiting New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

« I see this as a practical arrangement which will help us to tackle the problem (of fake news)… It is a step in the right direction, » Lee added.

Authorities in the tightly-controlled country — long criticised for restricting civil liberties — insist the measures are necessary to stop the circulation of falsehoods which could sow divisions in society and erode trust in institutions.

Ardern was among world leaders who joined tech firms this week in Paris to launch the « Christchurch Call », which involves voluntary commitments to stamp out violent extremist content online.

It is named after the city where a gunman killed 51 people at two New Zealand mosques two months ago while broadcasting his rampage live on Facebook via a head-mounted camera.