About a week after the fake news bill was proposed in Parliament on 1 April, international non-profit, non-governmental organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF) came out with a critical analysis of the bill, describing it as ‘completely inappropriate’.
Addressing several concerns shared by many others such as the bill’s loose wording which grants the government wide discretionary powers, and afford disproportionate penalties for publishing or sharing so-called ‘falsehoods’, the RSF said that the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation (POFMA) bill in it’s current form “would in reality be a horrifying tool for censoring and intimidating online media outlets and internet users”.
“It is not up to the government to arbitrarily determine what is and is not true,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“In its current form, this Orwellian law establishes nothing less than a ‘ministry of truth’ that would be free to silence independent voices and impose the ruling party’s line. We condemn this bill in the strongest possible terms because, in both form and substance, it poses unacceptable obstacles to the free flow of journalistically verified information.”
Among the issues RSF addressed include the select committee hearing that was convened by the government about deliberate online falsehoods. Following the Law & Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam’s announcement in 2017 of the government’s intention to draft a fake news law, a special committee was set up consisting of parliamentarians and minister to hear recommendations from representatives from the media and new technology sector.
RSF pointed out, however, the reported prepared by the committee was incomplete.
It wrote, “But the report that the committee handed to the government last September concealed many of the comments made by the persons who had appeared before it. And the deep reserves expressed by tech giant representatives were carefully excluded.”
RSF highlighted two people who appeared before the commission, freelance journalist Kirsten Han who appeared together with Terry Xu, TOC’s editor. After presenting her recommendations, Kirsten Han has said that she was “horrified” to see her views “so drastically misrepresented” in an official summary of the hearing.
Not only were comments concealed and misrepresented, some people who were invited to speak at the hearing weren’t given the chance to do so. Blogger Han Hui Hui who was invited to appear before the commission told RSF that she was led up the garden path by parliamentary officials after receiving the invitation.
She said, “They regularly changed the date and time of my hearing, and then finally cancelled it.” On to of that, she was also arbitrarily expelled from the room where the supposedly public hearing were taking place and on 29 March, adding that she was held for several hours.
As for RSF itself, the article notes that an invitation was also extended to the advocacy group. However, RSF clarified that the invitation was declined on the grounds that it “preferred to get a better idea of what was being proposed” before giving its recommendations. RSF added that private emails exchanged on the subject were published in mainstream Singapore media.
On the hearing itself, RSF was entirely unconvinced of the intentions. It said,
“This semblance of legislative process suggests that the adoption of a draconian law on the pretext of combatting fake news was planned well in advance.”
Highlighting PM Lee’s announcement in December 2018 that early elections could be held before the end of 2019, RSF suggested that it’s understandable that the PM would have interest in “suppressing all unwanted reporting during the election campaign”. Unwanted reporting here would be related to the corruption scandal and family dispute over the late Lee Kuan Yew’s will in 2018.
RSF continued, “In this regard, one of the bill’s provisions seems made to measure. As ministers cannot exercise their functions in the usual manner during an election period because parliament has been dissolved, article 52 says that the minister’s powers can be exercised by an “alternate authority appointed by the (…) minister.’”
This means ministers can appoint close aides to issue the censorship orders, giving the government powers to still exercise the powers afforded to them under POFMA after parliament is dissolved.