Coincidence? But government has the power to decide on the application of POFMA, no?

First few POFMA cases applied to political figures and parties was a "coincidence", says Minister of Communication and Information

Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran speaks in Parliament (Image source from screenshot of CNA news)

The government denied the suggestion by saying that the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) law only tackles falsehoods and does not affect legitimate criticism and free speech.

Minister for Communication and Information, S Iswaran said on Monday (6 Jan) that the first few cases that were brought under a fake news law which applied to political figures and parties was a “coincidence”.

NMP Anthea Ong and Assoc Prof Walter Theseira asked the minister about the perceptions of the partisan political bias over the law application in the recent few cases, and if the identity of the person making the false statement matters in gauging public interest.

“I think what you are alluding to is the fact the first few POFMA actions appear to have been issued against individuals who are either politicians or affiliated with political parties or political parties,” Mr Iswaran replied.

“I would say that that is a convergence, some might say an unfortunate convergence, or coincidence. It might also indicate to a certain pattern of communication that exists out there.

“But whatever the case may be, that is the situation today but it does not mean that is going to be the situation going forward,” he said.

The minister also said that it so happens those involved are politically affiliated, before adding that it is just a consequence of their actions.

Mr Iswaran was replying to the Parliament’s questions raised by Ms Ong and Mr Theseira.

Ms Ong also questioned whether the POFMA office flags and monitors the non-partisan news and statements that are made.

“The answer is yes, there is some efforts to monitor, but primarily I think we are looking at those cases which are egregious and those are egregious will pop out quite naturally and we know what they are, and we can deal with it.” replied Iswaran to Ms Ong’s question.

“If your point is (if) we are only training our sights on certain types of people or organisations, the answer is no. You can actually see that from the types of actions that are being taken.” he added.

During the minister’s speech in Parliament, he pointed out that the government also have a duty to ensure Singaporeans are not misled or misinformed by falsehoods.

After the minister’s remark, Singaporean’s independent journalist and Editor-in-Chief of New Naratif, Kirsten Han, took to her Facebook on 6 Jan to speak on this matter. She made a sharp comment in her post: “Well, it’s not like they have the power to decide when to issue POFMA orders, and to whom…”

Ever since the POFMA came into effect on 2 October and applied last year, the fake news law received a lot of criticism from different parties, including international news sites.

Last month, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) issued three Correction Directions (CD) under the POFMA to online postings by the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), which contain a misleading graphic and false statement of facts.

In response, the SDP submitted an application to cancel the CD but it was rejected by Josephine Teo, the minister for MOM on 6 Jan.

On 16 Dec last year, POFMA also issued a CD to Lim Tean, the People’s Voice party chief to correct his statements on Education Ministry spending more on foreign students and less on Singaporean students. The CD deemed his statements false and misleading.

At the same time, a CD was also issued to the administrator of States Times Review Facebook page, Alex Tan Zhi Xiang on 28 Nov last year to correct his post about the NUSSU-NUS Students United Facebook post relating to People’s Action Party (PAP) member Rachel Ong.

However, Mr Tan’s application to cancel his correction was rejected by the Minister for Law, K Shanmugam on 3 Jan. Meanwhile, the government ordered Facebook to add a special label to his post after he refused to comply with the initial correction notice.

Not forgetting, Brad Bowyer, a political activist who is also member of Progress Singapore Party, was also a victim of POFMA when he was asked by the government on 25 Nov 2019 to post a correction on a Facebook post the he published on 13 Nov.

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