Singapore’s fake news law: protecting the truth, or restricting free debate?
- The government has invoked Pofma four times in the past four weeks, on the basis of what some critics say are flawed interpretations of their points
- But the People’s Action Party has bristled against claims the law is being used for censorship, stressing that the offending posts and articles remain online
Still, the law was easily passed because of the parliamentary supermajority held by Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP) for decades.
K. Shanmugam, the home and law minister who vigorously campaigned to beat back local and international criticism of the law, said at the time that free speech proponents had little to worry about as Pofma only targeted “falsehoods”, “bots”, “trolls” and “fake accounts”.
Seven months on, Pofma is fully in effect – and while neither Singh nor his party have been ensnared, it is the opposition leader’s comments, not Shanmugam’s, that are proving prescient for other critics entangled by the law.
Lim Tean – also an opposition politician – the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and an Australia-based anti-PAP blogger were the three others who were served “correction notices” requiring them to amend posts deemed to contain “false or misleading statements of fact”.
Apart from Alex Tan Zhixiang – the blogger based in Australia, who for years has peddled one-sided commentaries attacking the ruling party – the others complied with the Pofma orders.
In each instance, the recipient of the Pofma notice had to amend their original post to prominently include a short statement that it contained false information, with a link to a page on the government’s Factually.sg portal that explained why the authorities thought the post was false.
The law stipulates that ministers can only wield it if two criteria are met – if there is a bona fide falsehood, classified as a statement of fact that is false or misleading; and if the use of the law is in the “public interest”.
Pofma gives ministers a variety of tools to combat deliberate online falsehoods. Among them are so-called “Part 3 directions” that can be served to individuals or organisations to force them to make corrections or take down posts, and “Part 4 directions” where social media companies and internet service providers can be directed to take action when the content creator does not comply with the earlier order.
Online, commentators have questioned whether the government had thoroughly considered the required “public interest” criteria in each of the four instances where Pofma has been used so far.
Asked to respond to this, a government spokeswoman told This Week in Asia via email that in all four instances the posts or articles “contained false statements of fact”.
The spokeswoman reiterated arguments by the likes of Shanmugam that it was up to the public to decide what was the truth, as the correction notices only required the addition of the government’s correction – and not a takedown of the original posts.
“People can freely read the original posts and articles, the corrections and subsequent comments made, and decide for themselves what is the truth,” she said.
WHOSE FACTS ARE RIGHT?
Two people affected by the Pofma notices – Bowyer of the Progress Singapore Party and Chee Soon Juan of the SDP – said they were not convinced of the government’s rationale for using the law.
But because Pofma requires swift compliance – even those who wish to appeal the order must first comply or face criminal censure – both adhered to the orders served on them.
Bowyer was asked to include a correction notice to a November 13 post in which he had questioned the independence of the country’s two state investors, GIC and Temasek Holdings.
The authorities’ 15-point rebuttal, which Bowyer was ordered to link to his original post, stressed that the government “does not influence, let alone direct, the individual decisions made by Temasek and GIC”.
Bowyer said even though he complied with the order, he held firm on his belief that so far the government was using the law to “rebut someone else’s opinion of facts” rather than to stop nefarious falsehoods.
He said the authorities had read the four points of his post “wrongly and then said my post ‘implied’ this and ‘implied’ that and so demanded it to be labelled as false”.
In the case of the SDP – a liberal political party with no parliamentary seats – Chee told This Week in Asia that while the “original rationale for the law was to counter deliberate falsehoods”, the action taken against his party was “more of an interpretation of statistics”.
“This is the use of the law as a pretext to further restrict free debate,” Chee said in an email.
The party complied with an order that took issue with a number of its online posts that said the number of white-collar job losses in the Lion City was increasing.
The Manpower Ministry – which issued the correction order – said this was false, as jobs for professionals, managers, executives and technicians had in fact been increasing since 2015.
Chee said “published government reports do not show conclusively that our statement is wrong”, adding that the SDP was challenging the ruling and would “go to court if we have to”.
Under the law, those served Pofma notices can appeal directly to the minister who signed off on the order. If the minister does not rescind his or her decision, those served the notice can approach the High Court – which will hear the case as early nine days after a challenge is launched.
‘I TOLD YOU SO’
Within the global community of academics studying free speech, the likes of Jennifer Daskal say the way Pofma was used in its first weeks – it came into effect on October 2 – reinforces their earlier assertions that the legislation is too sweeping.
Close to 100 academics in April wrote to the government expressing concern that Pofma could have “unintended detrimental consequences” on academic research on Singapore. The government dismissed those concerns.
“Singapore government officials like to portray this as a softer, gentler alternative to the more draconian requirement of a takedown. But that is misleading,” said Daskal, a law professor at the American University in Washington.
Michelle Amazeen, a Boston University professor specialising in political communication, said there was no way at present to rule out that the law was being used for the PAP’s self interest.
Like in sports, she said, there needed to be “independent referees” – third-party arbiters of truth – to remove the perception that the law was being used for reasons other than public interest.
The government has bristled at the criticism it has received from outside Singapore, with officials this week publishing rejoinders to articles about the law in The Washington Post and The Economist.
In the case of the American broadsheet, the government took particular aim at Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, who was quoted in a December 2 article as saying that it was “ill advised” for technology companies from the United States to set up a “massive, on the ground” presence in Singapore as it would make them beholden to the city state’s authorities.
He cited the example of Facebook’s compliance with Pofma as evidence that the law was designed to “put internet companies like Facebook in a headlock to comply with these rights-abusing edicts”.
One information ministry official wrote to Robertson challenging him to a live-streamed debate, and pointed out that the activist had failed to take part in parliamentary select committee hearings about Pofma in 2018 despite being invited to do so.
Asked to comment on the kerfuffle, Robertson told This Week in Asia the Singapore government had “ducked” the opportunity to respond to his organisation’s earlier written critique of the city state’s rights record and was currently trying to “score cheap public relations points with a debate offer”.
“Singapore is playing word games while using Pofma to run roughshod over people’s rights, especially the right to freedom of expression,” he said.
In its responses to both Western newspapers, the Singapore government pushed back against claims by Pofma naysayers such Robertson that the law amounted to censorship – pointing out instead that in exercising its powers under Pofma, it had not asked for any content to be taken down. It argued that the law was necessary amid the rising global scourge of deliberate falsehoods.
Those points were repeated in the government spokeswoman’s statement to This Week in Asia.
“Singapore, a small English-speaking, multiracial, multi-religious city state open to the world, is especially vulnerable to the insidious nature of slow-drip falsehoods,” she said.
“These falsehoods, if not addressed, would undermine public confidence in public institutions and create fissures in society. Having observed elsewhere the cost of doing nothing, we decided to act with a law designed to meet our own context and needs, to defend our own interest.”
While the government is insistent that there is no chilling of free expression, local commentators are suggesting they can shield themselves from the “Damocles sword” by working together.
Bertha Henson, a Singaporean former senior editor at The Straits Times newspaper who frequently comments on current affairs, wrote that one way to “pre-empt the use of Pofma” was by having readers “act as editors” to help commentators avoid falling foul of the law.
“Some of you have done so for my columns, whether typos or errors of fact. And that makes me both ashamed – and grateful. Let’s build a more congenial atmosphere online – and not a contentious one even if backed by the law.”