POFMA: Government not 'training our sights on certain types of people or organisations', says Iswaran

POFMA: Government not 'training our sights on certain types of people or organisations', says Iswaran

Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran
Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran speaks in Parliament on Jan 6, 2020.

SINGAPORE: The Government is not using the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) to target "certain types of people or organisations", said Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran on Monday (Jan 6). 

Mr Iswaran was responding to questions in Parliament from Nominated Members of Parliament Walter Theseira and Anthea Ong. 

In one of her supplementary questions, Ms Anthea Ong suggested that the first few POFMA cases were "partisan in nature", prompting "genuine concerns from the ground". 

She asked if the POFMA Office also "flags and monitors the non-partisan news and statements", citing the case of the fake NUS Facebook group that had surfaced and saying how "we didn't do anything until Facebook took it down themselves". 

In response, Mr Iswaran said: "If your point is (if) we are only training our sights on certain types of people or organisations, the answer is no. You can actually see that from the types of actions that are being taken.

"As I have said and I am prepared to re-state this, I think our response will be targeted and proportional."

READ: POFMA Office directs Brad Bowyer to correct Facebook post in first use of 'fake news' law

READ: States Times Review directed to correct Facebook post under online falsehoods law

READ: SDP directed to correct Facebook posts and article under online falsehoods law

Assoc Prof Walter Theseira asked several supplementary questions as well, one of which was if the identity of the person making the false statement matters in gauging public interest. 

"I would hope that the ministry could make clear that it's the virality, the damage the statement caused and not who says it, otherwise it could look ... as if the Government is setting up speed traps where perhaps opposition politicians drive and not elsewhere," he said.  

Mr Iswaran replied: "What you are alluding to is the fact the first few POFMA actions appear to have been issued against individuals who are either politicians or affiliated with political parties or political parties."

"I would say that there is a convergence, some might say unfortunate convergence or coincidence. It might also indicate to a certain pattern of communication that exists out there. 

"But whatever the case may be, that is the situation today but it does not mean that is going to be the situation going forward. 

"Ultimately, it's whether there is a falsehood, there’s a public interest threshold and if so, then what is the appropriate course of action," said Mr Iswaran. 

The minister also pointed out in his reply to Assoc Prof Theseira that in some cases, statements - not POFMA directions - have been issued.

“If you look at it in totality, we have to take into account the overall impact and then we have to consider what is the proportionate response and then be prepared to take it. And if it so happens that some of the people involved are politically affiliated, well that’s just a consequence of their actions,” he said. 

Aimed at combating the spread of deliberate online falsehoods, POFMA took effect at the beginning of October 2019, five months after it was passed in Parliament in May last year

POFMA was utilised for the first time in November 2019, with opposition party member Brad Bowyer directed to correct a Facebook post he made that, among other things, questioned the independence of Temasek and GIC. 

Under POFMA, a minister has the power to declare that an article contains falsehoods and issue directions, including asking for a correction to be carried. This direction can be challenged in court. 

Correction directions have also been issued to the States Times Review, opposition party Singapore Democratic Party as well as Singaporean lawyer Lim Tean

A correction direction is issued to a person who has communicated a falsehood that affects the public interest, according to the POFMA Office. 

It requires the recipient to publish a correction notice with the facts, but does not require the post to be taken down or edits made. The order also does not impose criminal sanctions.

RECENT POFMA ACTIONS "WARRANTED"

In Parliament, Mr Iswaran also said that a "confluence of factors" had led to the use of POFMA in recent times. 

Responding to a supplementary question from Ms Ong, Mr Iswaran said: "I don’t think you should go by the sheer number of times that it’s been used in this period. I think that it is a confluence of factors that has led to that," he said.

"If you look at the facts of the matter it is very simple, in each and every case, the minister advised by his officials has had to ascertain that there has been a falsehood in accordance with our existing law. 

"Second, he or she has had to be satisfied that there is a public interest requirement. Third, they have explained clearly – each ministry in each of its directions, it has issued a clear clarification as to what the falsehood is and why POFMA is being used. 

"And that includes therefore a broad explanation as to what is the public interest consideration ... So if you look at it in its totality, I think there is proportionality, it is fit for purpose and we have taken actions according to the situation as warranted," he added.

Source: CNA/mt(hs)

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