SINGAPORE: Singapore’s law against online falsehoods has not restricted free debate, the country’s consul-general in Hong Kong has said in defence of the recently enacted legislation, which has been criticised by some foreign media.
In a letter published on Tuesday (Dec 31) in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), Ms Foo Teow Lee said that an SCMP article reported untrue accusations that the Singapore Government has wielded the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) “indiscriminately and without cause, to restrict the freedom of speech”.
“We have not restricted free debate. None of the statements subjected to POFMA directions has been removed,” said Ms Foo.
“Surely, giving readers more information, and enabling them to decide for themselves where the truth lies, can only enhance public debate.”
The SCMP article published on Friday titled Singapore’s fake news law: protecting the truth, or restricting free debate?, carried comments from academics and opposition politicians on how the law dampens free speech and can be used “for reasons other than public interest”.
It follows other reports in international media, including Bloomberg, the Washington Post and the Economist, which have questioned if the law may be used to suppress political dissent.
READ: Singapore Government says Washington Post article on online falsehoods law is ‘perpetuating false allegations’
In response to the SCMP article, Ms Foo said: “In every case where we have issued correction notices to online posts, we have detailed the falsehoods as well as the public interest involved.
POFMA, which took effect on Oct 2, has been used four times since Nov 25. Correction directions has been issued to Progress Singapore Party member Brad Bowyer, the States Times Review, the Singapore Democratic Party and lawyer Lim Tean.
Correction directions require the recipient to publish a correction notice with the facts, but does not require the post to be taken down or edits to be made. The order also does not impose criminal sanctions.
In each instance, they had to post a correction notice prominently alongside the false statements made online. But they have also made statements later defending their original posts, saying that they will take matter to court.
The recipients of the correction directions can appeal directly to the minister who issued the order to rescind it, failing which they can take the matter to High Court.
In the case of the State Times Review, website editor Alex Tan refused to comply. The Government then issued a correction direction to Facebook, which put up a correction notice on the States Times Review’s social media post.
No court cases have been heard on cases of online falsehoods in the three months POFMA has been in force.
Said Ms Foo: "Far from being matters of 'interpretation of statistics' or 'opinion of facts', the statements corrected were all demonstrably factually false."
She also challenged the recipients to settle the matter in court.
"That would settle, simply and conclusively, whether the posts are opinions or facts and, if they are facts, whether they are true or false. Why have they not done this?"
"CAVALIER WITH THE TRUTH"
The rebuttal in SCMP is the latest in a series of salvos from the Singapore Government against foreign media reports critical of POFMA.
On Monday, Ms Ho Hwei Ling, press secretary to Communication and Information Minister S. Iswaran, penned a letter to Bloomberg responding to its article titled Singapore goes on global offensive to defend ‘fake news’ law, published on Friday.
“Your article criticises our responses to foreign media stories on POFMA. We have never shied from answering our foreign critics on any issue. They can say what they please. All we insist upon is the right of reply,” she wrote.
The Government is replying in this instance because the Bloomberg article contains “multiple factual errors", she added.
The article has presented the decisions of Google, Facebook and Twitter on political advertising to suggest that they were influenced by the Singapore Government’s actions, but this is untrue, she said.
READ: Google points to POFMA Code of Practice for not accepting political ads online after SDP raised concerns
“The POFMA Code of Practice imposes transparency requirements on political advertising, similar to those in other jurisdictions. The Code does not ban political advertisements,” she said.
“Google decided on its own not to accept such advertisements in Singapore, citing as precedent its practices in Canada and Taiwan.
“Facebook continued to accept such advertisements but imposed advertising transparency measures globally. Twitter banned political advertisements altogether globally.”
However, the Bloomberg article linked the three companies’ “different global decisions” with the Singapore Government and POFMA, she said.
“Regrettably, in your zeal to attack a law that calls for the maintenance of such high standards, your own report has been cavalier with the truth.”
RESPONSES TO OTHER MEDIA
Singapore diplomats had earlier written to Britain’s Economist magazine and US newpaper the Washington Post to defend the online falsehoods law.
Singapore’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom Foo Chi Hsia said in a letter to the Economist on Dec 19 that the law enhances the quality of public discourse.
“Readers can see both and decide for themselves which is the truth. How does twinning factual replies to falsehoods limit free speech?” she asked, in the response to the Economist’s report on Dec 7.
Britain and other countries have been grappling with the problem of fake news, she added.
“Fake stories have influenced British politics, notably in the Brexit campaign,” she noted.
"Singapore, a small English-speaking, multiracial, multi-religious city-state open to the world, is more vulnerable than most to this threat. Having observed in Britain and elsewhere the cost of doing nothing, we decided to act."
Singapore's Ambassador to the US Ashok Kumar Mirpuri also wrote to the Washington Post in protest to an article on POFMA published on Dec 2.
The response issued on Dec 7 was not published in full, but was later released to the public.
"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,” he said.