Singapore government issues online falsehood directive to opposition political party

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Singapore’s ruling government has issued correction notices against an opposition political group over three posts it deems to contain false statements. While the opposition party has complied with the orders, it has indicated plans to challenge the directive. 

The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) said on its Facebook page that it had to comply with the order, which was directed under the country’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), but would be applying to cancel the correction directions. Pointing to its previous statement on the issue, the opposition party noted that the conclusions derived by Manpower Minister Josephine Teo were “disputable”. 

The POFMA office on Saturday said it was instructed by Teo to issue three correction directions to the SDP regarding statements the latter had made in two Facebook posts and its website. The direction orders meant the full correction notice must be posted at the top of both Facebook posts as well as the website page. 

This marked the second time POFMA been used against the government’s political opponents since the legislation came into effect in October. 

A correction directive last month was issued to opposition politician Brad Bowyer, over a Facebook post he published alleging, amongst others, that the government was involved in decisions made by state-owned investment firms. He, too, complied with the correction notice, but called for more transparency and accountability in determining what constituted as false statements. 

In its correction direction to the SDP, the POFMA Office said the posts in question had depicted plunging local PMET employment in Singapore. This was wrong, the government office said, adding that the Manpower Ministry’s survey had indicated rising employment in the segment since 2015. 

It also disputed the SDP’s observation that retrenchments amongst local PMETs had increased, saying that this number had dropped since 2015.

In its response, the opposition party said its statements were based on publicly available and reported information, which had not been challenged by the Manpower Ministry. 

Commenting on the latest correction order against the SDP, Bowyer said in a Facebook post: “So every use of POFMA so far has nothing to do with rapid protection of society from disruption by those with bad intentions as was sold to us as a justification, but instead a slow and considered protection of the government’s reputation from its critics. Surely they can do that part without the need of a law?”

He urged the need to monitor how the bill evolved, and managed, or risk having half the posts in Singapore contain correction notices when the government disagreed with any derivation of facts that were based on “limited and often strategically presented information”. 

“Maybe transparency, clarity, and accountability without spin would rebuild trust without the need for this slap a legal label on everything to defend their reputation model,” said Bowyer, who is a member of opposition party Progress Singapore Party (PSP). “That would be a more mature way to handle it, wouldn’t it?”

The SDP last week said it had asked Google to clarify its recent decision to ban political ads in Singapore, to which the US tech giant had pointed to the Singapore government’s Code of Practice related to POFMA. 

In a notice published on its website, Google said its political content policy was updated on December 2 to disallow political advertising in Singapore on all its platforms. It defined political ads as advertisement that promoted the interests of a political party or individuals organised for political objects and that sought to influence the outcome of an election in Singapore. Ads that aimed to influence public opinion regarding a matter of public interest also were deemed political as were ads that sought to bring about changes to Singapore laws. 

In a statement published on December 10, the PSP said the POFMA currently “falls short” on transparency, independence, and accountability as it empowered ministers to determine statements to be false “without requiring any justification, criteria or standards”.

Noting that it supported the need for the government to act quickly to curb the spread of falsehoods, the opposition party said ministers should be empowered to demand news platforms to post links to sites on which the government could provide facts to combat the spread of misinformation. 

“However, to declare any news as falsehood and to impose any penalties thereof, PSP is of the view that it should be done by the [judiciary] courts of Singapore,” said the opposition party. “The courts would also have an established system and precedents of determining falsehood from its handling of cases like fraud, thereby, ensuring transparency and accountability.”

Under POFMA, two criteria requirements must be met for the laws to apply: there must be a false statement of fact and it must be in the public interest to act. The criteria does not cover criticisms, satire or parody, and opinions. Comments on falsehoods also are excluded, though, the Law Ministry has cautioned that “care” should be exercised to “avoid repeating” falsehoods. The ministry has also made assurances that the Act will not be used to punish people for sharing falsehoods “in ignorance [and] good faith”.

The bill had passed amidst strong criticism that it gave the government far-reaching powers over online communication and would be used to stifle free speech as well as quell political opponents.

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