Singapore Says It’s Fighting ‘Fake News.’ Journalists See a Ruse.
In May, Singapore passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), which gives government ministers the power to unilaterally declare online content “false or misleading” and demand that it be corrected or taken down.
The consequences of POFMA, Peter Guest wrote last month, could be profound for Singapore’s journalists and activists, and—if other authoritarian governments follow Singapore’s lead—for millions of people in other countries, too.
Peter Guest’s article is littered with inaccuracies about Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA).
The act enables the government to direct the correction or removal of a false statement of fact that affects public interest. Two conditions have to be met before the act can be used: One, a statement has to be false; and two, the falsehood has to affect the public interest. Determining what is or is not a fact, and what is false or misleading, is defined by well-established jurisprudence.
Opinions, no matter how critical of the government, are not covered by the act. For example, your correspondent’s view of Singapore as a repressive, authoritarian state, as wildly off the mark as it might be, will not run afoul of POFMA.
In most cases of falsehoods, a correction will be asked for, to be juxtaposed with the alleged false statement. The public will be able to access both the alleged falsehood as well as the correction, and come to its own conclusions as to what is the truth. Only in some more serious cases will a takedown be required.
Contrary to your correspondent’s assertion that challenging the government’s correction or takedown directions in the courts is “likely to be time-consuming and expensive,” the government has explained at length in our Parliament that such cases will be heard in court in as little as nine working days from the initiation of a challenge under the act, and that court fees for individuals will be kept low. Mr. Guest ignores this and other facts that might question the lurid picture he wishes to paint of Singapore.
For example, the reality of our media landscape is entirely at odds with the picture he paints. One wouldn’t have guessed it from his account of Singapore as a dark and malign country, but online and offline versions of The Atlantic are freely available in Singapore, as are many other global publications. Indeed, numerous leading global media and technology companies—including the BBC, Google, and Facebook—have made Singapore their base for operations in Asia. Surely they wouldn’t have done so if Singapore is as you have featured it.
Other countries in the world, just like Singapore, have acknowledged that online falsehoods can be a threat to their societies. Each is looking for its own solution to this problem. Singapore is an open, English-speaking, multiracial, multi-religious city-state in a rapidly changing region. Online falsehoods have the potential to cause great harm to our society. Singapore’s approach is not intended to be a model for other countries. Our laws may not conform to your view of how societies different from yours should conduct themselves, but our laws are for us to make, and they work for us.
Ashok Kumar Mirpuri
Singapore’s Ambassador to the United States