Authorities in Singapore have used an online misinformation law to either instruct platforms online to insert warnings next to posts they deem false or order the blocking of a page to internet users in Singapore.
Recently, the National Times Singapore (NTS) was alleged to have made untrue claims on its Facebook (FB) page. The government demanded that FB under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) to insert a banner on that page to state that those claims the NTS have made are false.
Given that FB has historically not viewed itself as the arbiter of news content, it unsurprisingly refused to comply. As a result of its refusal, authorities ordered FB to block access to the NTS site in Singapore which FB was “legally compelled” to comply.
NTS is operated by anti-government activist, Alex Tan, who lives in Australia and has repeatedly been accused of spreading falsehoods on a variety of subjects.
This is the fourth FB page operated by Alex Tan that has been subjected to a disabling order and also the fourth one to be declared as a Declared Online Location. Alex Tan’s website, States Times Review had already been blocked by Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) back in 2018 for refusing an order to take down its article entitled, “Lee Hsien Loong becomes 1MDB’s key investigation target”.
Without going into the contents of what was on the NTS website, this ability under POFMA to censor what people situated in Singapore can and cannot read is disturbing. Assuming, that the content was not one that promoted violence, why do authorities get to curate our thoughts?
At the end of the day, the Singapore has limited powers to control what publications located outside Singapore publish. Even as FB blocks sites like the NTE from internet users in Singapore, what’s to stop Alex Tan from using another online location (ie; online domain or FB page) which has not yet been asked to block content? Is the government going to go on a “blocking merry go round”?
Further, why did the Government not exercise the powers of POFMA to file criminal charges against Alex Tan for the creation of “fake news” as what the harsh penalty provisions within the Act was intended for?
Under POFMA, an individual can be charged with an offence for the communication of false statements of fact in Singapore which is liable for a fine not exceeding $50,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years or to both.
Did the Government choose not to exercise this power because it knows that its law will not be respected overseas and it will give Alex Tan legitimate means to claim political refugee status?
This yet again highlights the fallacy of POFMA which arguably unfairly targets local independent news websites and locally based individuals.
It is important to note that this is not the first time FB has been ordered to comply with the wishes of authorities in Singapore
A spokesperson for FB has raised concerns saying that “blocking orders like this are severe and risk being misused to stifle voices and perspectives on the internet….Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, and we work hard to protect and defend this important civil liberty around the world.”
There are already various websites aimed at fact checking and debunking fake news in Singapore. With this is mind, is it necessary to further police social media content? Surely, most Singaporeans should have the common sense to fact check before blindly believing baseless claims? Not to mention, the Police, various other agencies and ministries go on their social media platforms to debunk rumors promptly so why the need for such authoritarian rules which are not enforced in the way that they are meant to.
It is noteworthy that tech giants such as Google and Twitter and rights groups have expressed grave concerns about the law, which came into force in October 2019. In addition, political critics have also voiced fears that this far ranging power the government now has could potentially be used to quell criticism ahead of the imminent general election.
While the government always uses Singapore’s multi racial, multi cultural and multi religious make up to justify its control on information, it is important to note that it is arguably their permissive policies that have resulted in our blue collar migrant workers bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 outbreak.
If maintaining racial harmony is the reason in policing information, it has certainly missed a trick where our migrant workers are concerned.
Not only have our existing policies (unwittingly) encouraged Singaporeans to view migrant workers through racist lens, a member of parliament of the dominant Peoples’ Action Party, Yaacob Ibrahim, has made various disparaging remarks about our migrant workers which could arguably have promoted racism. One that would have sparked a police investigation if he or she is from the opposition or civil society.