Updated statement from media practitioners on concerns with the POFMA

We are deeply disappointed with the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (POFMA), tabled in the Parliament of Singapore on 1 April 2019. Our objections to the Bill are based on three main concerns:
1. The excessive infringement on freedom of expression, which will impact the work of media practitioners;
2. The government’s inability to appreciate the digital news industry and to work with media practitioners to combat disinformation; and
3. The increasing lack of government accountability to citizens.
These concerns have been expressed by various media practitioners, academia and civil society groups since the Bill was first made public, but were barely addressed by the Law Ministry since, or did not adequately address the concerns raised by these individuals and were quickly rebutted.1

We also recommend some directions that we would like our Parliamentarians to consider when debating POFMA.

Concern 1: POFMA as an affront to freedom of expression

The Singapore government, particularly through its representatives in the Law Ministry, have persistently declared that the protection against disinformation was meant to enable free speech2. Both the Minister and the Senior Minister of State for Law have repeatedly claimed that the Bill was meant to govern “statements of fact”, not opinions. However, from our own varied experiences, serious opinion writers who wish to better inform their readers about government policies would draw on contradictory facts and figures and the opinions of other stakeholders to support their analysis. These articles would be a combination of facts and viewpoints, diverse by nature, to add weight to the analysis. Yet, the Bill gives little clarity on how these opinion pieces, despite the diligence given to the analysis, can completely avoid running afoul of POFMA.

This is exacerbated by the vague definition of falsehood in the Bill – “a statement is false if it is false or misleading, whether wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears” (Part 1, Clause 2(2)(b) of the Bill). In such a definition, would a news report that uses facts from the government, but accurately replicates a view made by a newsmaker who disputes those facts, also be liable?3 Such ambiguity in the Bill makes it extremely hazardous for journalists to practice their craft in an environment where the Singapore government has demonstrated a low tolerance for even the slightest hint that it made a mistake.

Despite reassurances from the government that the Directions provided for under the Bill have minimal impact on online content4, the government retains the ultimate authority to close down any news website if its journalists fail to comply with its Directions. Such Directions must also be complied with even as news outlets seek to challenge them. This means news outfits would likely choose to preemptively self-censor or comply with Directions without further thought, to avoid more severe legal ramifications such as the curtailment of funding or imprisonment.
We state that POFMA, as it stands in the current Bill, promotes a “carpet bombing” mentality in the fight against disinformation, paying no heed to the distinctive nuances that lie between facts, opinions and outright disinformation. This approach is detrimental to the development of positive journalistic practices and to the development of a thinking public.

Concern 2: POFMA as a stumbling block for how the government should respond to media

The Minister and the Minister of State for Law have assured that the courts are the “final arbiters of truth”5 and that this arbitration would be cheap and uncomplicated6. However, it is undoubted that Ministers have the privilege to decide first what constitutes falsehoods7. To overturn this decision, an aggrieved news outlet will have to endure a lengthy process of appealing to the same Minister to revoke the Direction, failing which it can then take the same Ministry to court to resolve the issue. For a news organisation chasing a story of public interest, where timeliness is everything, this process is no different from killing the story.

Indeed, we are surprised that the government has not considered Recommendation 9 by the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, which states that “public institutions should, wherever possible, provide information to the public in response to online falsehoods in a timely manner”. Rather than reach for cease-and-desist Directions as a first option, the government should instead consider implementing processes for responding to media queries promptly.

Providing journalists with answers to their queries give them no cause to publish falsehoods or risk doing so at a cost to their own reputation. It would also demonstrate a willingness on the part of the government to take responsibility for quelling disinformation early. This can be done by putting into legislation a timeframe for government departments to respond to media queries, beyond which what the news outfit publishes cannot be declared “false”. Indeed, the Minister of State for Law has claimed that demonstrating the truthfulness of a statement was not difficult8. It then stands to reason that a government with infinitely more resources than online media practitioners should not find it too difficult to prove a falsehood.

We state that POFMA, as it stands in the current Bill, essentially makes the government a reactive player in the fight against disinformation, rather than a proactive and engaged partner of serious media outlets. This approach leads to a public that will be increasingly distrustful towards both the government and media outlets.

Concern 3: POFMA as the tipping point for poor government accountability

The greatest public discomfort with POFMA must certainly be the expansive powers granted the executive to act against what the government, and only the government, decides to be falsehoods. This executive overreach is most prominently seen in the sixth condition of falsehoods – that which “diminishes public confidence in the performance of any duty or function of, or in the exercise of any power by, the Government, an Organ of State, a statutory board, or a part of the Government, Organ of State, or a statutory board” (Part 2, Clause 7(1)(b)(vi) of the Bill).9

This sixth condition does not reflect the publicly announced ambit of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, nor what the Committee had affirmed was its focus throughout the public hearings – that of combating disinformation to maintain racial and religious harmony and election integrity in Singapore. This condition grants each Ministry the right to declare as false any material online that opposes its position, silencing meaningful public debate on policy issues and increasing the chances for political abuse that the Law Minister could not guarantee against.10 This is fundamentally unhealthy to our democracy and to public trust in the government and amounts to passing a dangerous law that a rogue government can abuse to clamp down on anything it finds unfavourable.

The Law Minister has also rejected calls for setting up an independent body to decide on cases of disinformation – an idea recommended by mainstream media, civil society and many individuals who participated in the Select Committee hearings11 – with the reason that the government is ultimately responsible. However, while the government has a responsibility, it is not the only one who is responsible12. Media practitioners and civil society all have a vested interest in ensuring a healthy media and information ecosystem. The government cannot play goalkeeper, defender, midfielder, striker and referee all at once.

We state that POFMA, as it stands in the current Bill, connotes a worrying trend of a government that is eager to implement laws that over-extend its reach into civic discourse and grants it unchecked powers that can be abused by this government or the next. This is patently unhealthy for public trust in the government, rendering any progress POFMA might make in securing free and fair elections nought.

Recommendations

In view of the problems identified above, we make the following recommendations to the Singapore government and to Parliamentarians debating on POFMA, and request that Parliamentarians follow these general directions in their deliberations and debate:

  1. To reconsider POFMA in light of the original purpose of Singapore’s fight against disinformation, which was to maintain racial and religious harmony and the integrity of our elections. These issues have a much narrower scope than “online falsehoods”, and there is a need for the government to craft laws that address these issues surgically.
  2. To consider amending relevant laws, such as the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act and Election Acts, to better accommodate the repulsion of disinformation. This would allow for the refinement of laws to specifically cater to the nuances of disinformation related to these situations, and also grant the government more legitimacy in using targeted tools.
  3. To consider all media entities, mainstream and online, as valuable partners in the fight against disinformation, rather than as the problem. Doing so affirms the government’s sincerity in enhancing freedom of expression and developing a more engaged public.
  4. Should it be decided that POFMA proceeds:
    a. To remove the sixth condition and all related clauses that grant the government
    excessive jurisdiction over the definition and persecution of perceived falsehoods. State legitimacy is not attained by force of laws, but in demonstrating a willingness to share power with those the government serves.
    b. To stipulate in the law conditions for the government to respond in a timely fashion – as befitting the urgency of debunking falsehoods, such as the response times prescribed in the current Directions – to substantive efforts by media practitioners to clarify information, failing which the government cannot declare a statement false.
    c. To consider the formation of an independent body comprising government representatives, community leaders, civil society groups, mainstream and online media practitioners and legal professionals, to serve as the deciders of disinformation, whose decisions would be arbitrated by the courts before any corrective actions are to be taken against said disinformation.

We the undersigned:
PN Balji
Joshua Chiang
Choo Zheng Xi
Howard Lee
Braema Mathi
Ravi Philemon
Kumaran Pillai
Ariffin Sha
Team @ TR Emeritus
Editors of Wake Up Singapore

 

 

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12 Responses to “Updated statement from media practitioners on concerns with the POFMA”

  • LIONS:

    THINK THEY SHUD INVITE OPPO SGS TO JUDGE ACCUSED?
    MAYBE THEY OSO SHUD INVITE TRE N TOC EDITORS TOO?

    maybe,in the end,WE ALL FIND THAT MSM DOES ALL THE FAKE NEWS and MPs and ministers as well???

    if FAKE NEWS-MAKERS are the judges,the accused sure kena jialat-jialat.

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  • Haigen-Diaz:

    POFMA could also be used as a means to wage an all out assault on any type of criticism, however minor or benign, against individuals and groups with limited resources to defend themselves. The use of outrageous fictional statements without a scintilla of evidence to support them to serve the agenda of the powerful is ancient. Authoritarianism becomes totalitarianism with its coerced ideology. Thought that does not support the arbitrary values decreed by power are punished.

    I’ll call it out here: there’s a difference between censuring someone before that person has a chance to express themselves (i.e., PREVENTING speech), versus seeking penalties for someone that used their speech to cause harm in some way (whether to reputation or otherwise). There is an enormous difference between suing someone for defamation and slander (and violation of an expectation of privacy) on the one hand, and the censoring of ideology and political opinion on the other.

    The government should not be the ultimate arbiter of what is or is not “truth”. Whether or not creating, publishing, contributing to and/or linking to a spreadsheet that publishes anonymous allegations under the category of POFMA is a matter for the courts to ultimately decide.

    The price of justice, has become an impossible price to pay for the common man. Authoritarian regimes that replace representational democracy could not succeed without the voters that fall for the fictions, and voluntarily hand over power to those with no morality; the anti-golden rule people I call them. That is the eternal human tragedy, the triumph of hate, greed, ignorance and fear.

    The problem extends yet further. Our capacity to reason about reality constitutes our single greatest adaptive advantage. It allows us to shape our environment and control the random destructive forces around us. But now, we’re facing an epistemological crisis in this country; we’ve moved well beyond “truth” into the autocratic, Orwellian realm of sequestration and secrecy.

    Dictators free themselves but enslave the people “ – Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator, 1940.

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  • RDB:

    Point 3:
    To consider all media entities, mainstream and online, as valuable partners in the fight against disinformation, rather than as the problem. Doing so affirms the government’s sincerity in enhancing freedom of expression and developing a more engaged public.
    ==========

    It is clear that govt ministers and mps are all lacking in coherent sensibility or are mindset programmed to be “I am govt and so I must be always right you voted for me us to be since 1959. … excuse me but I Ha-chew!

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  • NotMyProblem:

    I propose that this [email protected] laws to be thrown out the window.

    After all these laws only benefited the government to spin more fake news.

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  • patriot of TUMASIK:

    FAKE all the WAY…with Fake 1st World status leading The WAY!!!

    and FAKE is a four letter word befitting a Fake Nation, not a country so say the Sham( four letter word) Minister

    So??? this is a Four Letter SHAM of a StateINC, not a Nation or Country

    Where is The Republic of Singapore??? gone to the Dogs or Pigs walking on two legs???

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  • Great Asia:

    Those people listed are all angmoh worshipping Bananas.

    They are just leftist or Rightist Bananas!

    All are shallow monkeys!

    Ha ha ha!

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  • DoYouWantTheTruth...:

    ..and nothing but the truth?

    Then I think in the future, there will be a lot of complaints and police reports because …

    1) Saying things that cannot be proven, eg. God, is fake news
    2) Singing songs that are not true, eg. Santa Claus is coming to town, is fake news
    3) Predicting the future or the stock market, is fake news and should not be used to mislead people
    4) Giving statistics and polls, and plucking data from the air, without including info of the people being poll (eg. name and partial ID), is fake news, and citizens are advised to ignore them completely.
    5) Saying that the company is profiting but not opening the books for public scrutiny , is fake news
    6) Saying that CPF is not used for investment, but later found out that is not the case, is fake news.
    7) False advertising, eg. whitening toothpaste, is fake news

    Why do you need another law to cover already existing laws?
    There are laws on religion, advertising, defamation, news reporting, etc. There are no such thing as fake news, only believable news or non-believable news.

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  • To whom it may concern:

    Better keep yourself clean and bright; for you are the window through which you must see the world … The worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that’s the essence of inhumanity … The liar’s punishment is not in the least, that he is not believed by others; but that he cannot believe anyone else.

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  • inclusive / exhaustive clause:

    //POFMA could also be used as a means to wage an all out assault on any type of criticism, however minor or benign, against individuals and groups with limited resources to defend themselves.//

    aiyoh. it is as clear as crystal lar. cannot believe that the law book is already so thick (especially in 151th standard environment) that the wayang white idiots cannot find any wayang ACT / CLAUSE (e.g ‘all inclusive / exhaustive’ clause) that they can bring it up to penalize real serious threats (or security threats) to society / the nation ???

    caveat : opinion lar not fact lar.

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  • POFMA is a two-edge sword:

    Which one is a “falsehood”:

    (1) HDB flats are basically a depreciating asset and will be worth zero at the end of the 99-year lease (despite HIP1 and HIP2).

    (2) The price/value of HDB flats will never go down.

    If something is not labeled as a “falsehood” then it must be true. Is this correct?

    Will the following be considered “falsehoods”?

    (1) Singapore has basic freedoms and a free press just like the US, UK, and other developed countries.

    (2) Temasek did NOT lose billions when it invested in Barclays and Merrill Lynch.

    (3) GIC did not lose billions when it invested in UBS.

    (4) SLA makes a lot of money when it sells state land to HDB because the cost (not value) of such land to the government is zero. It never had to buy state land.

    What do you think?

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  • rukidding:

    Next time when ask to “swear” in courk ,…just say…”i swear to tell the truth and nothing about the truth”

    I think those Pimps and prostittes (P.a.p ) would love this !

    First in Stinkapore …1st world standard !

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  • SIN Acad n FNL:

    ST today reported on Academics fearing Ministers cum CJ supremo allied Fake News Laws is just like a bootlickers fakily mocking another bootlickers of the fake fear n laughing all the way to claim their rewards ranging from parking priviledges to promotion to multimillionaire minister from Bootlickers (SIN) Co Ltd formally CEO PAP now jointly CEO Gorilla/DSpap. Since VC NUS became an item on the rewards-credit point system of Bootlickers(SIN) Co Ltd following the privatization of RI, a dead wish of a deadly envious not making to RI boy in the 1950, OCBC VRChair, DPM,VCNUS, FILDeanofLaws, academics become neo academic effectively members of Bootlickers(SIN)Co Ltd leading to plp appointment to management of all tertiary dumps!

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