What is the purpose of POFMA appeal to ministries if replies are standard without justification and there’s a delay introduced to the process?

What is the purpose of POFMA appeal to ministries if replies are standard without justification and there’s a delay introduced to the process?

As readers will be aware, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) Office had issued two Correction Directions (CDs) to The Online Citizen Asia (TOCA) during the General Election (GE) campaign period.

The first CD was related to whether or not Dr Cheong Koon Hean suggested that Singapore’s population would increase to 10 million by 2030 at the IPS-Nathan Lectures in 2018, while the second CD was concerning TOCA’s livestreaming of an interview with Dr Paul Ananth Tambyah who stated on video that: (1) the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) actively discouraged employers from performing COVID-19 tests on migrant workers with threats of a potential loss of their work pass privileges; and (2) the MOM’s email advisory to employers on the testing of migrant workers was made without the advice from public health medical professionals.

While TOCA appealed against the past CDs a total of four times, the various ministries’ POFMA office all took two business days (the maximum allowed time to respond to an appeal) to reject each appeal, without giving any reasons for every account of rejection.

Even though the applications for the recent two applications were made after the GE, surely there is a need for some justification on the part of the ministries’ POFMA office as to why the appeal was rejected? After all, in each of TOCA’s appeals, it had clearly set out why it did not think that the CDs were warranted.

Also, given that the POFMA office did not explain why the appeal was rejected, surely it could have at least replied within a day or less to say no? Instead, it appeared to drag its feet, thereby wasting valuable time. Could this be deliberate? Or a compulsory feature worked into the process, just to ensure the time taken for the matter to be heard by the court will be at least ten days or more (weekends are not counted as business days).

No way for POFMA appeals to be heard in court within GE

The process for attempts to battle CDs require the ministries’ POFMA office to reject an appeal before it can be challenged in courts. The court process would take six business days to arrange, on top of the two business days that the offices will take to respond.

This means that no matter how fast one can be filing the application, the case could never have been heard and dealt with in court over the GE period, let alone getting the verdict of the hearing.

As a result of such a design for the POFMA framework, the content labelled by the various ministries as containing fake news will be held as such for the entirety of the GE period.

Given that population growth and migrant worker COVID-19 cases were hot-button issues during the recent GE, the CDs doled out may very well have impeded some form of debate.

Png Eng Huat: POFMA in the hands of a despot, will kill democracy over time

Former Hougang MP from the Workers’ Party, Png Eng Huat, voiced out strongly against POFMA during its passing in Parliament back in 2019.

He noted that POFMA “basically allows an incumbent party, who is seeking re‐election, the sole power to remove any damaging statement made against the party and its leaders, in the name of public interest, so as to contain any political fallout”.

The nuclear option, if abused, will actually allow Ministers to influence the outcome of an election, something which this Bill is designed to prevent in the first place.

“Who can vouch that an incumbent party, when faced with multiple battles on all fronts, will not resort to desperate measures to avoid losing power in a critical election?” Mr Png asked.

He went on to say, “The biggest fear of someone making a false statement of fact knowingly to influence the outcome of an election may not come from an individual or from an outside source, but from an incumbent party with ample resources to shape public opinion and perception at will. The biggest contributor of misleading propaganda may come from the incumbent Government itself. So, where is the protection against the incumbent from influencing the outcome of an election under this Bill?”

Mr Png then hypothesised, “What if, during an election, some insiders were to publish serious personal allegations against the top leadership of the incumbent party, questioning their integrity and character to lead the country. Under this Bill, the Minister, Competent Authority or Alternate Authority, can easily order a take‐down of the allegations in the name of public interest, knowing very well that no one, apart from the Ministers, the affected Minister and insiders themselves would know who was telling the truth. So, would this Bill be used to silent such information which could be material to help voters decide who to support in an election?”

He also pointed that any statement made against an entity of the authority or its leadership – which may not be outright false but could be misconstrued in the context in which it appears – can be taken down in the name of public interest under this Bill solely at the discretion of any Minister (or Alternate Authority), without having first to prove the alleged falsehood.

“The nuclear option would be able to silence anyone instantly at a critical time with no immediate recourse.” Mr Png remarked.

He later asked, “If an unscrupulous Minister were to abuse his power under this proposed Bill right before the hustings start, and win the election subsequently, what can the final arbiter of truth do? And, as the Minister had said yesterday, the fastest time the Courts can hear an appeal in this instance is nine days, excluding weekends and public holidays. There are only nine days of campaigning, including weekends and public holidays. Elections would be over by then.”

Ultimately, as Mr Png had rightfully pointed out in his speech, we have clearly seen how POFMA acts to the advantage of the incumbent in the recent election.

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