Arts community and civil society groups add their voices to the concerns over POFMA

Members of the arts community and civil society in Singapore – 28 groups in total – released a joint statement expressing shared concerns over the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill that was proposed by the government in April and is due for a second reading in Parliament in May. Groups include Maruah, Function 8, Arts Engage, Beyond Hijab, Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), Dream Academy, Independent Archive, Pink Dot, Penawar, and The Online Citizen.

The statement notes that the bill “would grant excessive discretionary powers of censorship to the executive branch of government”. It adds that any action to address misinformation and disinformation shouldn’t take the form of broad censorship powers as set out in the bill which also lacks robust safeguards to limit their use.

Concerns raised include the sweeping powers afforded to ministers to declare falsehoods and compel individuals or corporations to make corrections or remove ‘falsehoods’, the lack of safeguards outline in the bill, and provision that allow ministers to exempt anyone from the bill, and provisions that state legal and professional duties are no defence to non-compliance among others.

Read the full statement here:

Joint statement regarding the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill

We are members of the arts community and civil society who wish to express our shared concerns about the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, which would grant excessive discretionary powers of censorship to the executive branch of government.

Action to address misinformation and disinformation should not take the form of the very broad powers of censorship set out in the Bill, which lacks robust safeguards to limit their use. In our view, by empowering a government to silence critical voices, the law, if enacted, will promote fear and distrust. Like the “fake news” it is said to combat, it would undermine healthy debate and public confidence in our common institutions.

The Bill empowers any Minister to provide for executive orders compelling a person (individual or corporate) to take down their online communication and promulgate corrections as directed by the order. The Minister can also compel online platforms to take measures to disable access to a communication and publish corrections in the form directed. In both cases, failure to do as instructed would be a criminal offence.

The Bill applies to all kinds of online communication—a single text message in a private conversation qualifies. Orders can be issued regardless of the knowledge or intent of the person making the communication.

It has been claimed that these powers could only be exercised when a false statement of fact damages the public interest, and that the courts would be the final arbiter of truth. However, in practice, these are unlikely to be adequate safeguards. Even if an order were made regarding an opinion or a true statement of fact, it would be prohibitively expensive, time-consuming and intimidating for most people to apply to the courts. Moreover, they would also only be allowed to do so after exhausting an appeal to the Minister who had required the order to begin with.

Even if someone has the resources and confidence to embark on this process, before it is completed—which could take weeks or months—they could be censored and legally required to make public statements that they conscientiously disagree with. The Bill also provides that legal and professional duties are no defence to non-compliance, which means it can threaten (for example) attorney-client privilege, medical confidentiality, source protection and other important principles which allow vital services to operate for the benefit of the public.

The “public interest” requirement is also inadequate because it is satisfied as long as the Minister is of the opinion that the statement is against the public interest. The court cannot question this judgment. In reality, this subjective requirement would barely constrain a Minister’s actions in any way.

Disturbingly, the Bill also empowers Ministers to endow all public servants and employees of statutory boards to exercise powers under the Criminal Procedure Code, even though it is doubtful that they would have received the training ordinarily relevant to police officers.

Finally, under the Bill, a Minister can exempt any person or class of persons from any of its provisions. This means that a Minister can unilaterally decide to create two tiers of people in society, one which can spread falsehoods with impunity and another who are subject to this strict discretionary regime. This is a most perplexing provision for which we cannot see any justification.

The above broad powers are likely to inspire fear and distrust rather than encourage confidence. In other jurisdictions, legislation has granted a far more limited scope of powers and made judicial scrutiny an important and built-in first step to the process of halting communications. We strongly urge the government to withdraw this Bill and undergo more thorough consultation on less overbroad legal measures for combating misinformation and disinformation. We also urge all parliamentarians to scrutinise and question the Bill with a view to protecting the freedom of expression which is guaranteed in our Constitution.

Signed by:

Arts Engage
Arts Equator
Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE)
Beyond the Hijab
Bras Basah Open
Community Action Network Singapore
Dance Nucleus
Drama Box
Dream Academy
Function 8
Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME)
Independent Archive
Indignation
Intercultural Theatre Institute
Maruah
The Necessary Stage
No Readgrets, Singapore
The Online Citizen
Penawar
Pink Dot
Post Museum
Sayoni
Singapore Unbound
Soft/Wall/Studs
The Theatre Practice
Teater Ekamatra
Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2)
Wild Rice