On Wednesday (13 May), historian Thum Ping Tjin and Southeast Asian journalism portal New Naratif were slapped with a corrections direction (CD) over a YouTube video regarding the scope of the country’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipualtion Act (POFMA).
The CD was issued by the Pofma office on the instructions of Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, according to a statement.
The offending video, titled “The Show with PJ Thum – Ep 8 – How bad laws are created and abused in Singapore (A POFMA case study)”, was posted on New Naratif’s YouTube page, Facebook page and webpage, and Dr Thum’s Facebook page.
The CD states that several statements made in the video by Dr Thum are false.
These statements include that even if one part of a statement is false or misleading, the entire statement can be considered false; that POFMA makes all criticism of the government illegal; that there is no recourse in the law for the Court to overturn a POFMA direction if it is an abuse of power; that POFMA means that the truth is whatever the party says it is; and that the use of POFMA against the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) was about “interpretation of statistical data”.
The thing is, these are not the only statements of fact that Dr Thum made in the 27-minute long video.
Let’s take a look other statements of facts:
1. POFMA’s definition of a falsehood is so broad that virtually anything can be considered false
Dr Thum quoted Section 2 (2) of POFMA which says: “A statement is false if it is false or misleading, whether wholly or in part”.
Then he said:
“This doesn’t set out any standard for falsehood. This means that even if one bit is found to be wrong or misleading, the whole statement can be considered false.”
“This definition is so broad that the omission of a fact, accidentally or otherwise, is sufficient for something to be considered misleading. The problem is, it’s impossible to include every single fact about anything in any statement. You can’t. And even if you could, anyone could selectively quote it so that what they quote is misleading.”
“So under this law, every statement can be considered false in some way.”
“The law effectively makes all criticism of the PAP government illegal.”
Later in the video, he repeated:
“The definition of a falsehood is so broad that virtually anything can be considered false.”
2. Government tried to apply Protection for Justice Administration Act retroactively against Li Shengwu
He also said:
“They’ve [the PAP government] justified vaguely worded laws on the basis of public interest and national security before. We saw it with the Public Order Act, The Protection from Harassment Act, The Admiration of Justice Protection Act… They even tried to apply the Protection for Justice Administration Act retroactively against Li Shengwu.”
This statement, however, the government did not say is a falsehood. Instead, it is merely addressed as an additional clarification in its correction, saying that “…the Government did not try to apply the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act retroactively in Mr Li Shengwu’s case. The substantive law applicable to the case was common law contempt, and not the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act.”
3. PAP governments have spread misinformation about critics in the past
Dr Thum went on to assert:
“We know for a fact that past PAP governments have spread misinformation to silence critics, like in Operation Spectrum.”
The government said that this is his “opinion” and thus not subject to a POFMA direction, despite the fact that Dr Thum clearly stated that this was a known fact.
4. Unlikely that high court can overturn minister’s decision on POFMA directions due to really limited grounds
On the appeals process under POFMA, Dr Thum said:
“Of course there’s no guarantee that the high court will rule in your favour. It’s pretty unlikely actually because the high court can only overturn a minister’s decision on really limited grounds.”
He later said:
“The law doesn’t say that the high court can overturn a direction because they disagree with the minister’s opinion about whether it’s in the public interest or not. And most importantly, I think, the law doesn’t say that it can be overturned if the court judges that the minister abused the law.”
The government, in its clarification merely stated that this is false because “The Courts have judicial oversight of the exercise of powers under POFMA. It is therefore untrue to say that there can be no recourse in law, when there has been abuse of POFMA powers.”
5. Double standards of the government in application of the POFMA
On the effectiveness of the law, Dr Thum said:
“POFMA has generally been useless against the misinformation around the coronavirus with only a few corrections issued. It has been useless against misinformation from outside Singapore.”
“There has also been double standards because the government has responded to criticism of this law from Bloomberg, South China Morning Post, The Economist, and the Washington Post by putting out statements that their articles contain multiple factual errors.”
“The law doesn’t address the serious problems of disinformation campaigns that it says it wants to tackle because it has no effective remedy against state actors.”
“This law means that the truth will be whatever the party says it is and anyone who says otherwise will be punished.”
Now, the question is why did Mr Shanmugam not issue correction directions on these other statements of fact by Dr Thum?
And why did the minister say that these statements are opinions when they are clearly portrayed as facts by Dr Thum—especially in the case of Operation Spectrum? Is it because these are actually facts which cannot be contested in court should the order be appealed?