Foreign critics not restricted from saying “what they please”; political advertisements not banned under POFMA: S’pore Govt

The Singapore government has “never shied” away from responding to foreign critics “on any issue”, and that it only insists upon “the right of reply”, according to the Ministry for Communications and Information (MCI).

Ms Ho Hwei Ling, a press secretary to Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran, wrote in a press release on Tue (31 Dec) that contrary to the claim made in the Bloomberg article titled “Singapore Goes on Global Offensive to Defend ‘Fake News’ Law”, foreign critics have the freedom to “say what they please”.

“All we insist upon is the right of reply,” Ms Ho added.

Ms Ho added that the Government has written to Bloomberg as the article “still contains multiple factual errors despite three attempts to get the facts right”.

Singapore’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom Foo Chi Hsia last month similarly endorsed the Government’s right of reply in a letter to the editor of The Economist.

Ms Foo wrote that POFMA “should be looked at in the same context as our belief in the right of reply, which in our view enhances rather than reduces the quality of public discourse, and strengthens and safeguards proper public accountability that must necessarily underpin democracies”.

“Online posts that have been corrected remain available in full, but with links to the government’s response appended,” she stressed, adding that consequently, readers “can see both and decide for themselves which is the truth”.

“How does twinning factual replies to falsehoods limit free speech?” Ms Foo questioned.

The aforementioned Bloomberg article, published on 27 Dec, cited the observations of several foreign critics who alleged that the recent POFMA-related cases — such as that of States Times Review founding editor Alex Tan — are “just the latest in a string of attacks on dissent”.

Findings in a report published by U.S.-based Freedom House in Nov last year claimed that the city-state’s crackdown on dissenting voices has “intensified” in the past year, according to the Bloomberg report. The Freedom House report pointed to the temporary blocking of two local outlets and the prosecution of activists and journalists as among the signs that characterised said crackdown.

Research analyst for the group’s “Freedom on the Net” program Allie Funk told Bloomberg that such examples “underscore how the government is weaponizing what is the genuine issue of disinformation in order to suppress information online and the rights to free expression and access to information”.

The Ministry of Law, however, told Bloomberg in an email in response to queries that the new law is not a tool to stifle freedom of speech, which is “equally true with laws regulating the exercise of the rights of free speech and assembly, and with any other law”.

Noting that POFMA is enforced independently of the election cycle, MinLaw added that readers will have the option to access both the original posts and the Government-issued corrections “and decide for themselves on the truth”.

Political advertisements not banned by Govt via POFMA, Google decided against accepting such advertisements: Singapore’s Consul-General to Hong Kong

The Bloomberg article also reported that tech giants such as Google and Facebook are tightening their regulations around political advertising on their platforms in light of POFMA coming into effect.

According to the article, Google had informed Singapore Democratic Party chairman Paul Tambyah in a letter on 3 Dec that it will not be accepting political advertising regulated by the new law, citing similar decisions made in Canada and Taiwan.

Google’s vice president for government affairs and public policy in Asia Pacific Ted Osius told Mr Tambyah that implementing the restriction “was not an easy decision to make as Google is committed to delivering useful and relevant election-related information to users around the world”.

Singapore’s Consul-General to Hong Kong Foo Teow Lee in a letter to South China Morning Post on Tue wrote that contrary to what was suggested in the Bloomberg article, such advertisements are not banned under POFMA, and that Google itself had unilaterally decided against accepting such advertisements in Singapore.

She noted that the POFMA Code of Practice instead imposes transparency requirements on political advertising, and alleged that the Bloomberg article had presented the decisions on political advertising in a manner that suggests “that these decisions had been prompted by the Singapore Government’s action”.

Ms Foo also pointed out that Facebook similarly accepts such advertisements while taking transparency measures, but on a global level, while Twitter has banned political advertisements altogether worldwide.

“Three giant social media companies, three different global decisions on political advertising – yet your report linked them all with the Singapore government and alleged ‘opposition fears’ over Pofma,” Ms Ho wrote, adding: “Regrettably, in your zeal to attack a law that calls for the maintenance of such high standards, your own report has been cavalier with the truth.”

Ms Foo also countered SCMP‘s 21 Dec article titled “Singapore’s fake news law: protecting the truth, or restricting free debate?”, which she said “reported accusations that the Singapore government was wielding” POFMA “indiscriminately and without cause, to restrict the freedom of speech”.

She wrote that the statements that were subjected to correction directions “were all demonstrably factually false”, adding that such an issue is separate from simply “being matters of ‘interpretation of statistics’ or ‘opinion of facts’.

Ms Foo also asserted that it is “telling” that none of the parties who have received POFMA directions – including the Singapore Democratic Party – have yet to make an appeal to the respective Ministers or resorted to judicial recourse to confirm whether their statements were factual.

“That would settle, simply and conclusively, whether the posts are opinions or facts and, if they are facts, whether they are true or false. Why have they not done this?” She charged.

Govt reiterates invitation to HRW deputy Asia director to debate POFMA issue

Ms Foo also noted that Human Rights Watch (HRW) deputy Asia director Phil Robertson, whose statement was quoted in the SCMP article, has repeatedly declined the Government’s offers to argue HRW’s position and “show up the Singapore government’s errors face to face”.

“We repeat here, for the fourth time, our invitation to him to debate a Singapore minister,” she wrote. “If he is so convinced we cannot withstand HRW’s withering arguments, surely he should not hesitate to accept our invitation.”

Mr Robertson was previously quoted in a Washington Post article as saying that POFMA 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,” Mr Robertson warned, adding that Facebook’s phrasing of the correction suggested that the social media giant is “doing the legal minimum and signalling it is not supportive of Singapore’s requirement but it has no other choice”.

Ministry of Communications and Information director for information policy Bernard Toh last month was reported by ST as saying last month that Mr Robertson had been invited to appear before the Parliamentary Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods in 2018.

Mr Toh said that while HRW had originally accepted the invitation, the organisation declined after it was informed that it would be questioned on a report issued in December the year prior, in which it stated that the Singapore Government was suppressing freedom of expression.

HRW was offered eight alternative dates and the option of speaking via video-conference, but had “repeatedly came up with excuses to decline”, he claimed.

Back in 2017, HRW 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.”

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