SINGAPORE: Close to 100 academics from around the world have expressed concerns over the proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), which is currently awaiting its second reading in Parliament.
In a letter to Education Minister Ong Ye Kung dated Apr 11, the academics said they recognise that the Bill does not apply to "opinion, criticisms, satire and parody" but it may have "unintended detrimental consequences" for research in Singapore and around the world.
"What concerns us as scholars is that it sanctions and potentially criminalises 'statements of fact' that are 'false or misleading'," the letter said.
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The letter was signed by 97 academics and Singaporean signatories, including Professor Cherian George of Hong Kong Baptist University, Professor Donald Low of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Associate Professor Teo You Yenn of Nanyang Technological University.
Much of academic work, they said, is to dispute "apparently established 'facts'", which are "continuously reappraised as new data and analysis become available over time".
"Thus for many phenomena it is not possible to state definitively what is a 'fact' proven for all time," the letter stated.
"POFMA is likely to make many academics hesitant to conduct or supervise research that might unknowingly fall afoul of POFMA, or refer colleagues or students to faculty positions in Singapore’s respected universities."
The Bill, tabled in Parliament on Apr 1, is aimed at tackling the spread of online fake news, and malicious actors who knowingly spread such fake news, using criminal sanctions.
If the Act is enacted, individuals found guilty of knowingly spreading falsehoods that affect the public interest can be fined up to S$100,000 and jailed up to 10 years for the most severe cases.
A falsehood is of “public interest” if it has consequences on public health or finances or public safety or tranquility, Singapore's Law Ministry has said.
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The academics also expressed concern about the legislation's "broad definition" of Singapore's public interest and severe penalties for violations.
"These provisions may have unforeseen consequences for Singapore’s ability to serve as a global hub of first-rate academic research and technological innovation," they said.
BILL DOES NOT AFFECT ACADEMIC RESEARCH: MOE
The Ministry of Education (MOE) has responded with an assurance that the Bill will not affect academic research.
"The Bill covers verifiably false statements of fact which affect public interest. The Bill does not restrict opinion and will not affect academic research work," said MOE. "This is true regardless of what view the work presents."
The ministry added that law professors have commented on the Bill. SMU School of Law dean Goh Yihan, for instance, has said that the Bill strikes a right balance between giving ministers the power to swiftly address any fake news that surfaces, and then allowing that decision to be challenged in court.
MOE added: "We have extended an invitation to the autonomous universities to hold discussion sessions for their academics to clarify any concerns they may have, and look forward to meaningful discussions on the Bill."
READ: New law tackling online falsehoods not meant to create ‘chilling effect’ in public discussions - Edwin Tong
Responding to MOE's statement, the academics said they have noted the ministry's assurances that the proposed law will not affect academic research.
"But we cannot accept this as a categorical guarantee until it is reflected in the language of the Bill," they added.
In the statement, they also noted that most of the signatories are not based in Singapore.
"Several Singapore-based academics privately expressed agreement with our letter but declined to sign for fear of compromising their career prospects."