PERISCOPE – POFMA: TRUE OR FALSE, WHO DECIDES?

Written by: Sit Jie Ren (19-I4), Current Affairs Team

Designed by: Jo Yeoul (19-A2)

Foreword

With the inception of internet penetration and new media in the 21st Century, the proliferation of online falsehoods and manipulative statements has become ubiquitous1 in recent years. This article will examine the various implications of deliberate online falsehoods, and discuss the recent legislation passed by the Singapore Parliament. Do use the Universal Concepts (UC) to guide you.

Background

Fake news bring about wide-ranging ramifications to society. Firstly, it can be used to influence political sentiment. For example, in the recent Indonesian elections, online “buzzers” were used to spread fabricated information about some candidates  (Mokhtar, 2019). These misinformation attempts aimed to manipulate the opinions of voters in an appeal to sensitivities, with the potential to affect the outcome of elections, which clearly demonstrates the damage which fake news can potentially inflict on democracy, and politics as a whole.

In addition, fake news can also pose a cataclysmic menace to social cohesion and stability (Yahya, 2019). As Singapore has a racially diverse societal structure, fake news perpetuated with racial overtones could influence the mindsets of Singaporeans, and result in increased communal tensions.

Therefore, the government has recently implemented the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulations Act (POFMA), which seeks to grant the state new mechanisms to combat fake news.

Under this Act, any Minister of state may issue a direction to remedy false statements of fact online, which the individual issued with the direction may then appeal to the Minister. Should the Minister uphold his decision, the individual may then appeal to the courts. There are also other provisions under the bill which allow for the Minister to direct that the social media site or website to take actions to curtail the spread of fake news, restrict false accounts, as well as requiring internet service providers to block websites which fail to comply (Singapore Statutes Online, 2019).

Points of Contention

Who decides on what is false? (UC: Power & Influence)

However, the allowance for any Minister to decide on what constitutes a false statement of fact initially, as opposed to the judiciary has been highly controversial. This is provided under Section 10(1) of the bill, which states that any minister may issue a directive if (Singapore Statutes Online, 2019):

  • It is a false statement of fact being communicated in Singapore
  • It is for ‘public interest’

This is in contrast to the mechanism employed in other countries such as Germany (German Law Archive, 2017) where the government files an injunction2 to the courts, and the arbitration of truth is solely done by the Judiciary. Singapore’s involvement of the Executive while being more efficient in controlling fake news, could be seen as granting too much power and influence to the government.

However, the oversight by the government over free speech may not be welcomed by all. Opposition leader Pritam Singh recently said in Parliament that the law “gives broad latitude to the Executive to clamp down on what it deems to be even misleading statements which may not be false per se” (Sim, 2019). Many, including the United Nations Special Rapporteur3, David Kaye, also believe that Ministers should not be granted such overarching powers (Hakeem, 2019). In addition, several “broadly defined” clauses such as the definition of “public interest” in the act could result in the misuse of the law to stifle meaningful discussion and as a result, the freedom of speech (Channel News Asia, 2019). Thus, the implication of this law on freedom of expression still remains a contentious point of debate.

Free Speech vs Regulation of Falsehoods (UC: Beliefs & Values)

The dichotomy4 of free speech and regulation was clearly encapsulated in this recent legislation. Despite repeated assurances from the government that it will not affect freedom of speech (Tham, 2019), some concerns remain over the fact that the law provides for a third party to judge a statement of fact as false will, which could inadvertently result in a limitation on the freedom of speech (The Guardian, 2019).

However, it must be noted that the intent of the bill is aimed at preserving the values which our nation ascribes to, which Minister Shanmugam stated in the parliamentary debates (Mokhtar and Lim, 2019). These values have also been articulated in the 1991 “Shared Values White Paper” which stated that Singapore is a fundamentally Asian society, valuing collective interests over individual interests, which is said to have “strengthened social cohesion” (National Archives Singapore, 1991). Thus, it can be argued that the regulation of falsehoods could be deemed as a necessary evil in the preservation of our social cohesion, in spite of its implications on freedom of speech. Therefore, the beliefs & values of our society are imperatives5 in the intent of the legislation.

Definitions

Ubiquitous1 – seeming to be everywhere

Injunction2 – an official order given by a law court, usually to stop someone from doing something

Rapporteur3 – someone chosen by an organisation to prepare reports of meetings or to investigate and report on a problem

Dichotomy4 – a difference between two completely opposite ideas or things

Imperatives5of vital importance; crucial

* Word definitions sourced from the Cambridge and Oxford Online Dictionaries

References

For more in-depth reading about this issue, feel free to access the following links.

Mokhtar, F. (2019, April 14). Fake news causing confusion in Indonesia presidential election. Today, Retrieved from

https://www.todayonline.com/getting-people-wise-fake-news-ongoing-battle-indonesia

Yahya, Y. (2018, September 21). Select Committee on fake news: Singapore a target of hostile info campaigns. The Straits Times, Retrieved from

https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/spore-a-target-of-hostile-info-campaigns

Singapore Statutes Online (2019, April 1). Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulations Bill. Retrieved from

https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Bills-Supp/10-2019/Published/20190401?DocDate=20190401#pr4-

German Law Archive (2017, September 1). Network Enforcement Act (Netzdurchsetzunggesetz, NetzDG). Retrieved from

https://germanlawarchive.iuscomp.org/?p=1245

Sim, F. (2019, May 7). Worker’s Party opposes online falsehoods Bill, says Pritam Singh. Channel News Asia. Retrieved from

https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/online-falsehoods-workers-party-opposes-bill-pritam-singh-11511450

Kaye, D. (2019, April 24). Mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression OL SGP 3/2019. United Nations, Retrieved from

https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Opinion/Legislation/OL_SGP_3_2019.pdf

Channel News Asia (2019, May 1). NMPs propose amendments to draft online falsehood laws. Retrieved from

https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/nmps-propose-amendments-to-draft-online-falsehoods-laws-11493622

Tham, Y.C. (2019, April 2). Parliament: Law against online falsehoods will not stifle free speech: Shanmugam. The Straits Times, Retrieved from

https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/law-against-online-falsehoods-will-not-stifle-free-speech-shanmugam

The Guardian (2019, May 9). Singapore fake news law a disaster for freedom of speech, says rights group. Retrieved from

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/09/singapore-fake-news-law-a-disaster-for-freedom-of-speech-says-rights-group

Mokhtar, F. and Lim, J. (2019, May 9). Laws to fight fake news passed, Worker’s Party rapped for opposing move. Today, Retrieved from

https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/laws-fight-fake-news-passed-workers-party-rapped-opposing-move

National Archives Singapore (1991, January 2). White Paper on Shared Values. Retrieved from

http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/government_records/record-details/a472b486-7aea-11e7-83df-0050568939ad

This is the link for the image used in the design. 

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