The Singapore government, via its Ambassador to the United States Ashor Kumar Mirpuri, has challenged the Washington Post on its article about Singapore’s anti-fake news law which the paper said amounted to “censorship” and had a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression.
In a letter dated 7 December to the Post, Mr Mirpuri wrote, “Censorship entails banning or suppressing offending material. But the Government has not banned or suppressed anything. It has only required Facebook to append to the offending post a link to a factual correction. The original post remains intact.”
He added, “Readers can read it together with the Government’s response, and decide for themselves which tells the truth. This can no more have ‘a chilling effect on online free expression’ than your publishing this letter can stun The Washington Post into silence.”
The article by the Pulitzer prize-winning publication dated 2 December titled “Facebook issues disclaimer demanded by Singapore Government” is a report about the second direction issued by the Singapore government to Facebook to correct a post on States Times Review’s Facebook page which it says contains falsehoods. The direction was issued under the newly minted Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA).
The article was later updated to also include excerpts from Mr Mirpuri’s letter. In it, he had invited Mr Robertson to engage with any Singaporean minister on a debate on the topic, with the ambassador adding that the proceedings can be “live-streamed on Facebook”.
Mr Mirpuri, who has written to the Washington Post before (Singapore has a right to fight online falsehoods with its laws, 15 April 2019), went on to say that Singapore is especially vulnerable to threats of online falsehoods being an English speaking, diverse society that is open to the world.
“Your paper, like many others, has called out tech companies for publishing and spreading falsehoods online, and warned of the threat this poses to democracy,” he wrote.
“Pofma seeks to restore balance to the debate, by requiring tech companies to carry clarifications to reach the same target audience as the false statements.”
The Washington Post article noted that an order was issued to States Times Review (STR) to run a correction on one of its Facebook posts which contained accusations about the arrest of an alleged whistleblower, something the government denied. Editor of STR Mr Alex Tan declined to comply, stating that he is an Australian citizen and does not live in Singapore.
Subsequently, the Singapore government issued an order to Facebook to run a disclaimer on the offending STR post. The Post notes that this is the first time an American tech company is known to have complied with POFMA.
Facebook did so with a disclaimer on the post that read: “Facebook is legally required to tell you that the Singapore government says this post has false information.”.
The Post article said, “It’s the first time an American tech company is known to have complied with the country’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), which took effect in October.”
It went on to describe the law as “one of the most aggressive statutes drafted to date as governments around the world step up their regulation of tech giants”.
The article also quoted Human Rights Watch (HRW) Deputy Director Phil Robertson who said, “Singapore’s law is designed specifically to put Internet companies like Facebook in a headlock to comply with these rights abusing edicts.”
“With huge, onerous fines and the possibility of even prison time, it’s going to be hard for any company to not comply,” he added.
The article went on to say, “The Facebook correction is just the latest flashpoint in an ongoing debate about the law. Government officials say it’s a key line of defense against misinformation and interference in elections, but critics worry this could just be the beginning of a flood of government requests that could have a chilling effect on online free expression.”
Mr Robertson also noted that the manner in which Facebook complied with the direction signals that the tech giant does not support POFMA.
“By phrasing the correction the way it did, putting it only on the post that is the subject of Singapore’s action and ensuring the correction notice is only seen by those in Singapore, Facebook is doing the legal minimum and signalling it is not supportive of Singapore’s requirement but it has no other choice,” said Mr Robertson to the Post.
HRW declines Singapore government’s invitation to ‘fake news’ hearing
In his letter to the Post, Mr Mirpuri also noted that in 2017, the HRW issued a report in which it accused the Singapore government of suppressing freedom of expression. He said that the government had then invited the HRW to appear before a parliamentary committee to back its claims but the organisation declined.
“HRW initially accepted, but when told the parliamentarians would have questions on the report too, said that the dates were not suitable, despite being offered eight alternative dates plus a video-conferencing option,” said Mr Mirpuri.
Back in 2017, HRW had released a statement to say that it declined to attend the hearing because it was not a “true consultation” but a “media event”.
The organisation said: “We have … reluctantly come to the conclusion that these hearings are not a true consultation on how best to deal with ‘fake news’, but a media event aimed to showcase those who agree with the government’s views and criticize those who do not.”
After the hearing – which lasted for 8 days in 2018 – those involved in the hearing released a statement with complaints on how the hearing was conducted and the way how the summary was written. It was signed by civil societies Community Action Network and Function 8, journalist Kirsten Han, historian Dr Thum Ping Tjin and TOC chief editor Terry Xu.
The statement noted that the select committee did not adhere to its own terms of reference and did not appear to be interested in soliciting the views of those being questioned. The statement also said that during the proceedings, articles were presented and selectively quoted in ways that were sometimes misleading and that some submissions were grossly misrepresented within the official Summary of Evidence.
This year, Dr Thum penned another post on his submission at the select committee hearing, reiterating the same points he made during the hearings and in his follow-up submissions a couple of months later. He asked if POFMA would be used against him in this posting.