SINGAPORE: The Singapore Government said on Monday (Dec 16) that US publication The Washington Post's refusal to publish its response in full means it is “perpetuating false allegations” in an article about Singapore's online falsehoods law.
The Washington Post article on Dec 2 discussed Singapore’s use of directives under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA). It said Facebook had “for the first time complied with a controversial local law aimed at curbing misinformation” on a States Times Review article.
The article added that critics were worried that the law could have “a chilling effect on online free expression”, quoting Mr Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch's (HRW) deputy Asia director.
Five days after the article was published, Singapore's Ambassador to the US Ashok Kumar Mirpuri wrote a letter to the news outlet explaining Singapore's position. That letter was not published in full.
On Monday, the director of the information policy division at the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) wrote to the publisher of the Washington Post Fred Ryan and Mr Robertson.
In his letter to Mr Ryan, MCI's Mr Bernard Toh said that only a brief quote from Mr Mirpuri was included in the article, but it "ignored the crux of our response".
The letters to the Washington Post was released to the public "in the interest of transparency", Mr Toh said.
SINGAPORE AMBASSADOR'S LETTER
The Washington Post article quoted only part of Mr Mirpuri’s letter on Dec 7 to say that POFMA helps protect Singapore from the risks of fake news.
In his letter to the Letters and Local Opinion editor at the Washington Post, Mr Mirpuri wrote: "Censorship entails banning or suppressing offending material. But the Government has not banned or suppressed anything. It has only required Facebook to append to the offending post a link to a factual correction.
"The original post remains intact. Readers can read it together with the Government’s response, and decide for themselves which tells the truth.
"This can no more have 'a chilling effect on online free expression' than your publishing this letter can stun The Washington Post into silence."
The only part of his letter that was used by the Washington Post read: "Singapore – an English speaking, multi-racial, multi-religious society open to the world – is more vulnerable to this threat than most.
"POFMA seeks to restore balance to the debate, by requiring tech companies to carry clarifications to reach the same target audience as the false statements."
In Mr Toh’s letter to Mr Ryan on Monday, he wrote that the news outlet had declined to publish the response on grounds it only ran letters on articles that appeared in its print edition, not just online.
After being directed to the article's author Cat Zakrzewski, she also declined to carry Mr Mirpuri's response in full.
"She included a brief quote from our letter in her article, but ignored the crux of our response: That contrary to allegations that the Singapore Government had censored a Facebook post that it deemed to be false, the original post remained intact and accessible," Mr Toh said.
"It is ironic that the (Washington) Post should have responded thus, given that your article had accused us of censorship. By refusing to carry our letter or report it more adequately, the (Washington) Post is perpetuating false allegations."
READ: Singapore Government rejects Human Rights Watch's criticisms of new law targeting online falsehoods
READ: Human Rights Watch responds to criticism at Select Committee hearing
SINGAPORE’S INVITATION TO HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH
In a separate letter addressed to Mr Robertson, Mr Toh noted that the HRW had been invited to appear before the Parliamentary Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods.
“It initially accepted the invitation, then changed its mind after being told that it would also be questioned about a report it had issued in December 2017, accusing the Singapore government of suppressing freedom of expression,” he said.
“HRW repeatedly came up with excuses to decline our invitation, despite being offered eight alternative dates, plus a chance to appear via video-conference."
Mr Toh said the Government was willing to debate the issue with HRW at any university forum in Singapore and to live-stream the exchange on Facebook.
“We hope that you do not refuse our invitation yet again," he added.