PEN International, a global association of writers, has expressed its concern over how the Government has used the law about combating disinformation to “remove critical views” about Singapore’s method of handling the COVID-19 pandemic.
The law mentioned is the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), which was enacted in October 2019 to prevent the spread of online falsehoods in the country.
In a statement released on 10 July, the association said: “PEN International is concerned by reports that legislation ostensibly intended to counter ‘fake news’ is being applied to remove legitimate commentary on the Singapore government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic”.
The statement was published after Correction Direction (CD) was issued to several organisations for carrying critical remarks made by Dr Paul Tambyah—who is a physician and incoming President of the US-based International Society of Infectious Diseases, and a candidate for the Singapore Democratic Party—on how the Government had poorly handled the COVID-19 pandemic in Singapore.
The organisations that the CD was issued to include web-based media organisation, New Naratif and The Online Citizen Asia, as well as Channel News Asia (CNA) and the National University of Singapore Society (NUSS).
“Dr Tambyah’s remarks were carried in two separate interviews – first, in an interview by New Naratif’s managing director, Dr Thum Ping Tjin, which was livestreamed on the website of The Online Citizen, which also carried an excerpt on its Facebook page,” the statement read.
It added, “In the interview, Dr Tambyah had praised the government’s early handling of the COVID-19 pandemic but also made critical remarks about its subsequent management. Dr Tambyah made similar remarks to the NUSS, which were carried on the alumni body’s YouTube channel and reported in the state-owned network, CNA.”
The association pointed out that when POFMA was first introduced last year, the government “reassured the public and parliamentarians that it would not restrict legitimate debate or criticism of the government”.
However, using POFMA during an election campaign can stop criticism of the government from be raised, it said.
“Singapore’s Constitution Article 14 grants every Singapore citizen freedom of speech, assembly, and association. Subject to two clauses, every Singapore citizen has the right to freedom of speech and expression; the right to assemble peacefully; and the right to form associations. Furthermore, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights grants everyone the right to seek, receive, and impart information,” PEN International stated.
Based on this situation, PEN International’s Chair of Writers in Prison Committee, Salil Tripathi, said: “Elections are an important time for voters to ask questions to governments and hold officials to account.”
He added, “Issuing correction directives during an election can chill political conversation and stifle debate, preventing voters from getting necessary information. This is a matter of dismay. The government should withdraw such directives and amend the law to ensure that it does what it is meant to do – fight fake news, not block criticism.”
As such, the writers’ association noted that the purpose of POFMA was to “deal with the dissemination of falsehoods online, or ‘fake news’”, emphasising that Ministers or officials have “unprecedented and sweeping powers” to act against anything that they view as false or not in the interest of the public.
“Ministers have a wide range of actions under the Act, including requiring the writer or publisher to issue a correction notice, or forcing the statement to be taken down, failing which penalties, including fines of up to $20,000 and prison terms of up to 12 months for non-compliance, may be imposed.
“The writer or the publisher has the right to appeal, and the appeal process is to be completed in eight days, but given the short cycle of political campaigning in Singapore, such a directive issued after the first day of the election period effectively removes the news or commentary from the public domain until the election is over,” it stated.