The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) will take effect starting Wed (2 Oct), five months after Parliament had passed the legislation in May, according to the Government Gazette on Tue (1 Oct).
The notice reiterates that the Info-communications Media Development Authority has been appointed as the “Competent Authority” under the Act by the Minister for Communications and Information.
POFMA aims to curb or counteract “the electronic communication of” what the Government views as “false statements of fact in Singapore” and “to enable measures to be taken to counteract the effects of such communication”.
“False statements of fact” may range from statements that are deemed “prejudicial” to Singapore’s security and multi-racial and/or multi-religious harmony to those with the capacity to “influence the outcome of an election” of a member of public office and “diminish public confidence” in the Government and public service.
The new legislation also aims at stopping “the financing, promotion and other support of online locations” that the Government deems to “repeatedly communicate false statements of fact” in the Republic, in addition to putting in place means to “enhance disclosure of information concerning paid content directed towards a political end”, which will possibly include the power to cut off advertisement revenue should a content provider be found guilty of making “false statements of fact” for the third time in six months.
Section 7 of the proposed Act states that “communication of false statements of fact in Singapore” should not be done whether “in” or “outside” the Republic, which infers that even foreign-based publications and tech companies making and publishing statements about Singapore that are deemed to be untrue by the Government may not be exempt from the scope of the legislation.
Any misuse of “online accounts and bots” will also be considered an offence should the Bill be passed and enacted in order to “detect, control and safeguard against coordinated inauthentic behaviour”.
Individuals found guilty of using “inauthentic online accounts” or “bots” to propagate such statements shall be subject to a fine not exceeding S$50,000 or be jailed for a term not exceeding 5 years or to both under Section 7(2), and to a fine not exceeding S$500,000 “in any other case”.
For individuals who are found guilty of making “false statements of fact”, a fine not exceeding S$100,000, or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years, or to both, may be imposed under the Act. A fine up to S$1mil may be imposed “in any other case”.
The introduction of POFMA triggered a shockwave of debates across Singapore about the need for such a law, as well as the possibilities of how the law could potentially be manipulated by errant government ministers to further any possible political agenda on their part. The concerns primarily revolve around the issues of freedom of speech for citizens as well as freedom of the press.
Some of the primary points of contention in POFMA included, but were not limited to, the following:
- Any minister can declare a statement to be a falsehood and order an immediate removal or correction of the statement;
- The person accused of making a falsehood can only seek recourse at the High Court once the minister who made the declaration first rejects their appeal, and;
- The High Court can only decide whether the statement was indeed false. It cannot judge on whether the minister’s original declaration and/or order of removal was made ‘in the public interest’ as the law outlines.
Workers’ Party (WP) secretary-general Pritam Singh told Parliament in May that the executive arm of Government, particularly Ministers, should not be given the “remarkable leeway” to determine what constitutes false statements of fact”.
Citing a clause in POFMA which stipulates that the Government may declare a statement to be false if it considers such to be misleading, whether partially or wholly, he said: “In public understanding, this clause gives broad latitude to the Executive to clamp down on what it deems to be even misleading statements which may not be false per se.”
Mr Singh argued that what the Government deems to be offensive, misleading, or in contravention to “public interest” might be understood or defined differently by others.
“While the Government must legitimately be able to apply to shut down malicious actors, a court order should legitimise the action that needs to be undertaken,” he added.
Regional and international organisations such as the Asian Internet Coalition, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, the UN Special Rapporteur, Reporters without Borders heavily criticised the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, citing infringement of civil rights, and even urgently proposed amendments to the draft law.
Even global tech giants such as Google warned that POFMA would be detrimental to innovation. However, despite the overwhelming objection from media practitioners and civil rights groups, POFMA was passed without any amendments.
Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, in light of concerns regarding whether POFMA will also target satire, parody and the likes to stifle dissent, reiterated that the government has been “very clear, both in Parliament and outside” that the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) does not target satire.
“Only false statements that objectively would be seen as statements of fact can be caught under POFMA,” he told reporters on 13 Sep, in response to queries regarding a controversial Media Literacy Council (MLC) infographic shared by the Council to the public earlier last month, which had erroneously listed satire as one of the forms in which fake news could appear.
“When there is material, it has to be looked at objectively – is it factual, is it false but pretends to be factual, or is it satire, parody, opinion and so on,” Shanmugam added.