27 journalists, including Clare Rewcastle-Brown of Sarawak Report and editor-in-chief of Southeast Asian affairs platform New Naratif Kirsten Han, have signed a letter expressing concern regarding the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill on Wed (24 Apr).
The letter, which was addressed to Minister of Communications and Information S Iswaran, criticised the Bill’s “failure to take into account the realities on the ground”, given that stories are filed by journalists “as situations develop and facts are still emerging”.
“In some cases, contradictory accounts of an event are not unusual and the truth might only become clear over an extended period of time,” the letter read.
“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”, and as a result, the upcoming Act will “hinder rather than encourage the free flow of accurate information”.
“News organisations might feel compelled to withhold important stories simply because certain facts cannot be fully ascertained”, particularly “in Singapore where it is often not possible to get a response in time from the government,” according to the letter.
Countering Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam’s defence of the Bill, who has on multiple occasions reiterated that POFMA will apply only to statements of fact and not opinions, the signatories of the letter highlighted that the distinction between “statements of fact” and “opinion” is “not always clear”.
“Opinion writers regularly cite facts to back up their positions, and a journalist’s interpretation and presentation of a set of facts might contradict a minister’s own understanding of what took place,” stressed the journalists.
The broad scope of powers that will be granted upon Ministers under POFMA may, according to the signatories to the letter, be then “misused for selfish gain”.
The group of journalists, in their letter, have also urged the Singapore government to withdraw the Bill, and to instead replace what they have dubbed a “draconian” legislation with “genuine and robust discussion” on how best to fight the spreads of online falsehoods.
Other notable signatories of the letter include multi-award winning Al Jazeera journalist Steve Chao, former Deputy Bureau Chief for Reuters in Bangkok Andrew MacGregor Marshall, Senior Editor at Foreign Policy James Palmer, and former anchor for BBC and CNN Veronica Pedrosa.
Read the letter in full below: