Media-giant Facebook has been directed under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) to disable the access of Singapore users to the States Times Review (STR) Facebook page.
The direction was issued by Minister for Communications and Information, S Iswaran on Monday (17 February).
In a press statement, the Ministry of Communication and Information (MCI) said that the disabling order follows STR’s failure to comply with recent directions that have been served on the page under POFMA on several separate occasions.
Most recently on Saturday (15 February), the STR Facebook page was designated a Declared Online Location (DOL) under POFMA, which is done when online locations have carried out three or more different online falsehoods that are subjects of correction direction, one of which was related to the Covid-19 outbreak.
Under the DOL, STR is required to carry a notice stating that it has been declared a DOL, which it has not done.
MCI said in its statement: “After being served a Declaration on 15 Feb 2020 notifying that it was declared a Declared Online Location (DOL), the STR Facebook page has not carried the required notice stating that it has been declared a DOL, which serves to warn visitors of the previous falsehoods that this page communicated.”
As of the publication of this article, the STR Facebook page is longer accessible.
According to a Facebook company spokesperson, it determined that the company is legally compelled to restrict access to the STR FB page in Singapore after “careful review of the order.”
“We believe orders like this are disproportionate and contradict the Government’s claim that POFMA would not be used as a censorship tool. We’ve repeatedly highlighted this law’s potential for overreach and we’re deeply concerned about the precedent this sets for the stifling of freedom of expression in Singapore.”
STR shuts down and transfers ownership to The Real Singapore
In a post on the STR Facebook page today, editor Mr Alex Tan wrote that the site will be shutting down in compliance with the MCI’s requirement. The post added that The Real Singapore (TRS) will take over the Facebook page and the ownership of the website, statestimesreview.com.
The post also introduced a new writer, Melanie Tan, who will be taking over TRS.
As of today, the Facebook page URL has changed to @TheRealSingapore.
In a separate post, STR explained the situation: “Singapore’s ruling party government has issued a censorship order on Facebook requiring them to block users from Singapore from accessing the Facebook page of States Times Review (STR).”
It added that while Facebook has yet to respond to the demands of the government, the social media platform is “held at ransom” because it has invested over US$1 billion in building a data centre in Singapore.
“The Ministry for Communications and Information has since threatened that Facebook faces a fine up to S$500,000 if it does not ban the States Times Review Facebook page,” said the post, referring to the penalties as outlined under POFMA.
It went on to say that Mr Iswaran “accused Alex Tan for profiteering from ‘fake news’”. It included a quote of the minister saying, “The STR Facebook page is linked to other websites operated by Mr Tan which derive monetary benefits from publishing falsehoods at the expense of Singaporeans and our society.”
The post continued to explain that the penalties Mr Tan faces for refusing to comply with the three POFMA correction orders and for “profiting from the page” adds up to about 12 years jail time and a fine of S$12,000, which is “ten times more serious than voluntarily causing physical hurt and molest charges”.
The post said, “Alex Tan, an Australian and Singaporean dual citizenship holder, has since responded to the POFMA order on Facebook by declaring the shut down of States Times Review. The Real Singapore has since taken over the website and Facebook page, with the Facebook url now changed.”
STR’s refusal to comply with correction directions
Last Thursday (13 February), the Ministry of Health (MOH) issued a clarification notice to STR to correct and clarify a number of statements published in a Facebook post regarding the Covid-19 outbreak. A targeted correction direction was also issued to Facebook.
Mr Tan said he would not comply with the direction because “the article remains factual”.
However, Facebook complied and posted a notice saying, “Facebook is legally required to tell you that the Singapore government says this post has false information” and provided a link to the government’s Factually website.
On 31 January, STR was issued a correction direction as directed by Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing over a post on Facebook claiming that Singapore had run out of face masks. Again, Facebook was issued a targeted direction for the post.
Back in November, STR received its first correction order over a post about an NUSSU – NUS Students United Facebook post relating to People’s Action Party (PAP) member Ms Rachel Ong. On this, Facebook did comply with the targeted correction direction which it received with a notice saying it is legally required to inform users that the Singapore government says the post contains false information.
Mr Tan, on the other hand, did not comply with any of the orders.
STR website blocked in Singapore in 2018
This isn’t the first time that STR has faced this issue of being blocked.
Back in 2018, the STR website was blocked by Singapore Internet Service Providers (ISPs) after it refused to remove a 5 Nov 2018 article entitled, “Lee Hsien Loong becomes 1MDB’s key investigation target”. The article claimed that editor-in-chief of investigative journalism platform Sarawak Report (SR) Ms Clare Rewcastle had mentioned Singapore as “one of the key investigation targets, alongside Switzerland and United States” in the 1MDB scandal during an interview with Malaysian media.
MCI had ordered the article to be taken down by 9 November while the Information and Media Development Agency (IMDA) warned that it would direct ISPs to restrict access to the site should MCI’s orders not be complied with.
As Mr Tan did not comply, the site was blocked a day later. STR remains inaccessible in Singapore.
Not the first time for transfer and shutdown
This is not the first time that STR has announced a shutdown. After the site was made inaccessible, Mr Tan said a Canada-based reader of STR reached out to him about continuing the website.
Mr Tan wrote that this new person will be the “solely in-charge of the writing and the IT back-end. I will have no editorial rights, nor will I interfere with his editorial”.
One diligent and eagle-eyed netizen actually tracked down the IP address and server of Singapore Herald which clearly shows the website is being hosted on the same server that STR was using.
Singapore Herald was also subsequently blocked by IMDA for failing to comply with their order to remove several ‘objectionable’ articles.