Ever since the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) came into effect on 2 October last year, it received a lot of criticism from different parties, including international news sites.
Just recently (31 December), Ms Ho Hwei Ling, press secretary to Communication and Information Minister S. Iswaran, wrote a in a letter to Bloomberg responding to its article titled “Singapore Goes on Global Offensive to Defend ‘Fake News’ Law”.
“Your article criticises our responses to foreign media stories on POFMA. We have never shied from answering our foreign critics on any issue. They can say what they please. All we insist upon is the right of reply,” she said in the letter.
She added that the Government has written to Bloomberg as the article “still contains multiple factual errors despite three attempts to get the facts right”.
Bloomberg’s article, which was published on 27 December, cited the observation of several foreign critics who alleged that the recent POFMA-related cases – such as that is States Times Review founding editor Alex Tan – are “just the latest in a string of attacks on dissent”.
In addition, the article also reported that tech giants like Google and Facebook are tightening their regulations around political advertising on their platforms in light of POFMA coming into effect.
Besides Ms Ho, the article published by South China Morning Post (SCMP) on Friday titled Singapore’s fake news law: protecting the truth, or restricting free debate? also did not go down too well with the Government.
This is because Singapore’s counsel-general in Hong Kong Ms Foo Teow Lee said in a letter published in SCMP on Tuesday (31 December) that the Government did not use POFMA to “indiscriminately and without cause, to restrict the freedom of speech”.
She wrote that the statements that were subjected to correction directions “were all demonstrably factually false”, adding that such an issue is separate from simply “being matters of ‘interpretation of statistics’ or ‘opinion of facts’.
Other diplomats reply to foreign sites
Similarly, other Singapore diplomats have also written to Britain’s Economist magazine and US newspaper Washington Post to state their defence towards POFMA.
Last month, Singapore’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom Foo Chi Hsia endorsed the Government’s right of reply in a letter to the editor of The Economist.
Ms Foo wrote that POFMA “should be looked at in the same context as our belief in the right of reply, which in our view enhances rather than reduces the quality of public discourse, and strengthens and safeguards proper public accountability that must necessarily underpin democracies”.
Separately, Singapore’s Ambassador to the US Ashok Kumar Mirpuri also penned a reply to the Washington Post in disagreement to its article on POFMA published on 2 December.
“POFMA seeks to restore balance to the debate, by requiring tech companies to carry clarifications to reach the same target audience as the false statements,” he said.
Why POFMA is not applied to foreign news outlets?
As of now, four correction directions have been issued by different ministries to different individuals in Singapore, mainly to Progress Singapore Party member Brad Bowyer, the States Times Review, the Singapore Democratic Party and chief of People’s Voice Party Lim Tean.
However, the Government has not applied POFMA to any of the above-mentioned foreign sites, despite highlighting in their statements that the articles contain “factual error”.
During the second reading of POFMA in Parliament last May, MP Kwek Hian Chuan Henry said POFMA “seeks to root out merchants of mistruths, or special interests and worse still, foreign influence that seeks to deliberately manipulate and destabilise our society through fake news.”
Besides him, Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC MP Alex Yam also highlighted his support towards the Act in Parliament, and said: “disinformation campaigns, weaponised narratives, all served as this new front and we must all be prepared.”
He added, “To better inform the public on why POFMA is of particular importance to combat such foreign campaigns, I ask that the Minister share more on how the Bill serves as a counter to state-linked campaigns run against us and to prepare and inoculate our people against such disinformation that seeks to divide our population.”
Separately, Law and Home Minister K Shanmugam also said during the POFMA debate in Parliament that Workers’ Party’s suggestion of getting the Court to decide false news first instead of the Minister is a slow process.
“In fact, I do not even think there is much disagreement on the provisions but in terms of sequence – let the Court decide first instead of the Minister, whereas the Government’s position is Ministers decide, subject to an appeal which will be quick,” he said.
He continued, “If you apply the Workers’ Party’s proposal of the Courts first, you cannot be sure that you can act speedily. You will have to bring a person to Court every single time, and that is even without considering other issues. I have said foreign agents. Who do you sue? How long will it take to find the originator? How do you serve?”
“In both approaches, the Court is involved. It is not as if the Court is ousted in one approach. In the Government’s approach, you get certainty of speed.”
Given that Mr Shanmugam said that getting Ministers to decide false news is a much faster process, then why the Government is not using POFMA on the falsehoods generated by these foreign sites?
Why are the Ministers taking the long-winded route of writing a letter to voice their disagreement over the alleged falsehoods instead of issuing correction directions immediately?