After the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (POFMA) was proposed in Parliament on 1 April, it instantly became the talk of the town and received a high volume of criticism and concerns from various parties across Singapore and around the world.
One of the first few groups to raise its worries were The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and the global civil society alliance CIVICUS. They released a joint statement highlighting that the bill “is merely a smokescreen to increase curbs on the freedom of expression, and to further silence dissent in this already tightly controlled State”, adding that the provisions in the bill are inconsistent with human rights laws and standards on freedom of expression and information.
That’s not all. The two organisations also noted that the new law gives authorities to a single party (the Government) to decide what is true and false, which can “be abused to target online criticism of the State, including from activist and civil society groups”.
Echoing the same concerns, the Asian Internet Coalition (AIC) pointed out that the proposed legislation will hand the Singapore government full discretion over what is considered true or false.
In its statement AIC added, “As the most far-reaching legislation of its kind to date, this level of overreach poses significant risks to freedom of expression and speech, and could have severe ramifications both in Singapore and around the world”.
Although AIC supports the government’s goals to protect “social cohesion, harmony, and integrity of institutions and political processes”, it’s “disappointed by the lack of meaningful opportunities for public consultation during the drafting process of this bill, given the significant implications it could have for diverse stakeholders, including industry, media and civil society, in Singapore, the region and internationally.”
AIC is an industry association comprising leading internet technology giants like Apple, Facebook, Google, Expedia group, Amazon, LINE, LinkedIn, Rakuten, Airbnb, Twitter, Yahoo! as well as Booking.com.
As such, the organisation stays put with its position, which is shared among many experts around the world, that “prescriptive legislation should not be the first solution in addressing what is a highly nuanced and complex issue”.
Focusing on POFMA, AIC noted that it will be working closely with the government to handle misinformation, and hoped that this new bill “will not be at the expense of the benefits that public debate and exchange of ideas can bring”.
Highlighting a similar concern, independent literary publisher Ethos Books pointed out that they have “reservations with the proposed bill in its entirety” as it gives sole power to any Ministry and its Minister in determining what is harmful and false.
Under POFMA, ministers will be allowed to have the power to issue a correction direction or stop communication direction – basically to compel an individual or company/website to issue a correction of the ‘falsehood’ or remove the content entirely, if they say a certain content is fake.
However, there is no definition in the bill to state what determines if a statement is false or who or what entity(ies) will determine the authenticity of the statement. This would mean the Minister can simply point at a statement of fact or any report, and say that it is fake.
As such, the publisher said, “There are multiple truths that we each hold, in varying gravities. This will impose rigid structures that may be antithetical to the practices of art-and culture-making”.
Emphasising its concerns, Ethos added that giving this responsibility to a single person, regardless of their designation, is “potentially demoralising and casts a censorial effect on works of art”, sometimes even before these works can be materialised.
Besides Ethos, the current and former media practitioners have also released a statement on 18 April (Thursday) to all MPs expressing their disappointment and problems with POFMA, particularly its freedom to render the government a reactive player in the fight against false news rather than a proactive and engaged partner of media outlets, as well as granting the government total power that can be abused by this government or the next.
In addition, the media members also highlighted that the proposed bill would infringe freedom of expression as it does not sufficiently account for the distinctive nuances that lie between facts, opinion and outright disinformation.
Based on the issues they have with POMFA, their statement also talked about some of the suggestions that they recommended the MPs to consider, the first being a refinement of existing laws for the government to treat media entities as valuable partners, rather than as the enemy in fighting against false news.
The next direction is to remove excessive executive power that is given to the government so that the Singaporean authorities can be encouraged to better engage with media outlets in a timely fashion, in case POFMA is enacted. They also reiterate the formation of an independent body to decide on falsehoods, a proposal that many media practitioners and outlets have recommended.
On the other hand, another party that offered recommendations on what the government can do to manage online content is the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ).
The international human rights non-governmental organisation highlighted that POFMA is “vague” and “inconsistent” with international legal standards as “its provisions present a real risk that it can be wielded in an arbitrary manner to curtail important discussion of matters of public interest in the public sphere, including content critical of the government”.
This is because ICJ believes that critical arguments, exchange of opinions and free access to information are crucial in order to have an informed society and “ensure transparency, accountability and informed debate on crucial matters of public interest”.
Citing David Kaye’s Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, ICJ suggested that state regulation of online content should include “smart regulation, not heavy-handed viewpoint-based regulation”; restriction of content should be made by an independent authority which follows the “standards of legality, necessity and legitimacy” and “not impose disproportionate sanctions”; and any restrictions restraining freedom of expression and opinion must be clearly provided in law and it can only be done in serious threats like protection of national security and public order, which must be in accordance with international law standards.
Besides the above mentioned groups, on Wednesday (24 April), 27 famous journalists have also come forward and signed a letter addressed to the Minister of Communications and Information S Iswaran to express the issues that they have with the Bill.
The letter 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”.
“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”.
The letter added, “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”.
After POMFA was proposed in the beginning of the month, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam has gone all out to defence the Bill and said it will only be applied on statements of fact and not opinions. Referring to his statement, the journalists opined that the distinction between “statement 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.
In addition, highlighting the same concerns just like the other groups, these prominent journalists also said that by granting a broad scope of powers to Ministers under POMFA, it can be “misused for selfish gain”.
As such, this group 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.
Additionally, the groups in the local arts community and civil society raised similar concerns about POFMA in their joint statement published on 29 April which noted much of the same concerns as other groups such as the sweeping powers of the bill and lack of clarity in defining what constitute falsehood. The 28 groups also noted in their statements, “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 statement points out an additional point that the bill provides that legal and professional duties are not a defence to non-compliance, meaning that “it can threaten attorney-client privilege, medical confidentiality, source protection and other important principles which allow vital services to operate for the benefit of the public”.
Rather significantly, it appears that SPH and Mediacorp have also neglected to report the letter sent by the UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye to PM Lee urging him to withdraw the proposed legislation and provide additional time for legislative and public consideration to ensure that the Bill aligns with international human rights standards.
In his letter, Mr Kaye argued that the impending legislation would serve as the basis to deter fully legitimate speech – including public debate, criticism of government policy and political dissent – as well as serving as a model for far-reaching restrictions on vague and discretionary grounds of falsity.
Mr Kaye wrote, “In my experience as Special Rapporteur, I have seen laws against “false information” be used to target journalists, activists, and others, and the proliferation of such laws are cause for grave concern.”
Finally and to date (30 April), both media conglomerates have also not reported the event held at Hong Ling Park which saw over 250 members of the public gather at to discuss their concerns over the fake news bill. Speakers at the event included lawyer and advocate Khush Chopra, former politician and founder of Asia Centre Dr James Gomez, media professional and political activist Brad Bowyer, and activist and former social worker Chan Wai Han. The 2.5 hour event saw concerned Singaporeans, young and old, showing up to make a stand to protect the freedom of speech which they feel the bill threatens.
Looking at all these concerns raised by these groups on POFMA, it’s surprising to see Straits Times (under SPH) and Mediacorp sites Channel NewsAsia and Today Online – who have been constantly updating the public on the Government’s points and arguments for POFMA – fail to report on the different perspectives and worries that were brought up by these various important parties.