Tuesday, July 23, 2024
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SINGAPORE: With Singapore rocked by scandals and controversies, the Government has cracked down on social media, invoking the fake news law POFMA more often in July 2023 than in any other month since April 2020 when the partial lockdown, called the circuit breaker, was imposed to curb Covid-19.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), colloquially called the fake news law, has been used by the Government on five separate occasions so far in July with seven individuals and publications handed down correction orders, in just a few weeks.

Correction orders were handed down in July to Reform Party chief Kenneth Jeyaretnam, Facebook user Thamil Selvan, noted socio-political commentator Andrew Loh, TikTok user Jansenng1, and most recently, founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s younger son and Prime Lee Hsien Loong’s brother, Mr. Lee Hsien Yang.

In addition, two online publications have been issued correction directions, namely, the Jom website and a blog entitled Political Sophistry, under the fake news law POFMA.

Separately, The Online Citizen Asia was essentially branded a fake news site and cut off from funding under POFMA.

The Ministry of Communications and Information in a press release on July 21 announced that The Online Citizen Asia website, Facebook page, Twitter account page, and LinkedIn page were Declared Online Locations (DOLs) which “individuals and companies must not provide financial support to if they know or have reason to believe that by doing so they would support, help or promote the communication of falsehoods in Singapore”.

The number of correction orders issued this July is among the highest since  POFMA came into effect in October 2019. The correction orders issued in July alone are more than half of the total number of orders handed down in the whole of last year.

Only two other months have matched the number of correction orders that were handed out this month: January and April 2020 – the month Covid-19 hit Singapore shores and the month the country entered the circuit breaker period, respectively.

Coming into effect on October 2, 2019, the fake news law POFMA was invoked five times against five separate entities that year – once in October, twice in November, and twice in December.

The Government used POFMA heavily in 2020 to combat fake news surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic and the Government’s prevention measures. The law was invoked a total of 21 times that year.

In January 2020, five corrections were made under the fake news law POFMA, but only four were issued to people or groups in Singapore. The first correction that year was issued to Malaysian human rights and law reform NGO Lawyers for Liberty. Again in April 2020, during the circuit breaker period, another five corrections were issued.

In July 2020, it was invoked four times and in May that year, three times. POFMA was invoked on two occasions in February and one instance each in March and June. It was not used between August and December 2020.

In 2021, the fake news law POFMA was invoked nine times – once each in April, August, November, and December, twice in October, and thrice in May.

Last year, POFMA was invoked on eight occasions – once each in February, March, April, May, September, and November, and twice in October.

The heavy use of POFMA this month comes amid a spate of scandals that have involved members of the governing People’s Action Party (PAP).

A PAP minister has been suspended since around the time he was arrested as part of a Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) probe.

The Speaker of Parliament was then caught uttering an expletive in the House against an opposition MP. The same Speaker subsequently resigned from the PAP and Parliament after he was found to have been involved in an extramarital affair with another PAP MP, who also resigned.

Should ministers be arbiters of facts?

The use of POFMA so far this month has reignited concerns over whether ministers should be the arbiters of what is factual and not factual.

POFMA was intended to allow authorities to counter fake news by enforcing links to fact-checking statements, issuing correction orders, and if necessary, censoring websites or assets on social media platforms, and bringing criminal charges against recalcitrant offenders.

However, the fact that government ministers issue correction orders, in effect, deciding what’s true or untrue, has led to criticism.

What the Law Ministry says

The Law Ministry has said that ministers do not have complete authority to determine whether something is a false statement of fact as the Act provides for a right of appeal to the Court and the Courts have the final say on whether there is a false statement of fact.

As to why the Act empowers Ministers to issue corrections or take down orders, the Ministry has said in an FAQ: “Falsehoods can affect any policy domain. The Minister whose policy domain is affected by the falsehood can issue a correction or take down direction.”

Concern over the fake news law POFMA

The opposition in Singapore, local and foreign activist groups, the international media, and large tech giants have expressed deep concern over the reach of the law.

Workers’ Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh has previously asserted in Parliament that “ministers should not be the deciding body on what constitutes false matters”. Pointing to the perception that the law appears to give “broad latitude to the executive to clamp down on what is misleading but which may not be false per se,” Mr. Singh argued that the courts should be the avenue to decide what is false.

WP chairperson Sylvia Lim added that the process to appeal against the orders could be “very onerous” to the applicants due to “information asymmetry between the Government and individuals”.

Dozens of journalists also signed an open letter stating, “By failing to distinguish between a malicious falsehood and a genuine mistake, the proposed legislation places an unnecessarily onerous burden on even journalists acting in good faith”.

The Act has been criticized by human rights groups and free speech organizations, as well. Reporters Without Borders claimed that the bill was “terrible”, stating that it is “totalitarian” and used as a tool to regulate public debates.

Reuters has said that the Act “ensnares” government critics, while in 2021, the International Commission of Jurists called on the government to repeal or amend the Act so that it does not “arbitrarily restrict the right to freedom of expression and information online”.

Social media giant Facebook, which has had to remove several posts under the Act, has also said it was “concerned” over the “broad powers” the Act confers on the Singaporean government.

Meanwhile, the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), which comprises Google, Apple and Facebook, expressed disappointment over the lack of public consultation and concern that “the proposed legislation gives the Singapore Government full discretion over what is considered true or false.”

AIC 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.”

Why POFMA became law

The fake news law POFMA came into effect on October 2, 2019, after the Bill was passed on May 8, 2019, with a 72-9 vote when all nine Workers’ Party MPs and NCMPs voted against it. The newspaper Today reported on October 2, 2019:

“Other laws, such as the Telecommunications Act and the Broadcasting Act, already criminalize falsehoods and enable the Government to penalize those dealing in mistruths.

“POFMA, on the other hand, gives the Government more targeted powers to stop the spread of any falsehoods which would hurt the public interest, such as by damaging Singapore’s security, foreign relations, public peace, health, safety, and finances.

“Its ambit also includes falsehoods that:

Influence elections

Incite hatred between different groups of persons.”

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said POFMA was “designed to give the Government the tools to deal with falsehoods on the Internet that can go viral in a matter of minutes and cause untold damage to society”, reported the Straits Times the day before the law came into effect.

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