Earlier this week, World Politics Review (WPR) released a 36-minute interview podcast with Cherian George, a Professor in the Department of Journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University. In it, the learned professor addressed Singapore’s new fake news law also known as Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA).
A Singaporean himself, Prof George explained in detail his many concerns about POFMA. According to him, POFMA arms the government with excessive power that it can wield in any way it likes. The law, he says, has very little to do with “cleaning the information environment” like dealing with genuine problems such as the spread of hate propaganda.
In effect, Prof George says the Act erodes the trust the public have in the institutions of the government.
“You have to build trust in the institutions. Both in the government as well as in the press. And so on”, he quips.
This law, he explains, works counter intuitively as it kills the freedom of speech which includes good faith in journalism. As a result, it creates more cynicism in the eyes of the public.
“It tells people, we can’t even trust the academics. We can’t even trust good faith” he said.
Prof George also noted that the closest targets of POFMA in recent months have been alternative online news sites.
This is in reference to States Times Review (STR) being served correction orders on three separate occasions for publishing falsehoods on various issues, including the coronavirus situation in Singapore. Earlier this month, the STR Facebook page was designated a Declared Online Location (DOL) and an order for Facebook to ban access to the page in Singapore. This led to the page being effectively shut down and converted into a Facebook page for a different alternative news site called The Real Singapore.
Apart from this, the professor says that POFMA has been used to go after political opposition members who are just engaging in a public debate. Therefore, openly it can be seen as an abuse of the Act rather than its original intention to protect Singapore’s national security, he pointed out.
However, with the upcoming General Election, the Professor opines that POFMA will not hinder or limit the speech of opposition politicians. Over the years, the opposition members have become more experienced in navigating the Singapore political terrain.
At the same time, the Professor forecasts that the Act may be used against foreign media who operate with more freedom to cover the local elections.
Given that scenario, Prof George believes there could be a calibrated censorship where the government does not really impose open restrictions but instead creates a haze in the minds of journalists to self-censor themselves.
In response to a question by the interviewer on how people, as consumers of news, could be protected from falsehoods that is prevalent in the media, the professor proffered that the long term solution would involve pre-bunking instead of fact checking the posts. In other words, this means the minds of the public have to be cultivated not only to be more media literate but also to be more politically literate.
“You need to understand that there are more powerful interests in the information eco-sphere that is trying to manipulate some debates. You need to understand what their interests are. You need to understand, for example, who is behind the certain things you might hear. So it is to warn the audience, ahead of time to the kinds of manipulation that they are likely to face”, added Prof George.
The professor elaborated that this type of manipulation is “scapegoating”, especially when the blame is squarely placed on minority groups by politicians. It is understandable that there would be a manipulation of emotions, and therefore, when approaching issues such as these, the Professor recommends that people should be trained to practice scepticism and being objective.
On whether other Southeast Asian countries would follow Singapore’s footsteps to introduce similar laws, the Professor believes that this would not occur.
“I would predict a far greater push back against any such bill. These are countries that have bigger oppositions, more vocalized society, and fairly active legal communities. You probably would have lawyers on the streets, in Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries in Asia if something as extreme as Singapore’s law was ever mooted” he said.
The professor concluded, “Singapore is an unusual case of an illiberal regime that believes in doing things by the book to an almost obsessional degree. It’s been called ruled by law as opposed to rule of law, which is why you end up with this which is uniquely a Singaporean creature of a very detailed sophisticated written statute to achieve what most non democracies would simply do by fear.”
Last year, the professor had written an exhaustive document entailing his observations and concerns that he had on the law.