Permanent Secretaries empowered to invoke anti-fake news law during general election

torn paper revealing the phrase "Fake News"
PHOTO: Getty Images

SINGAPORE — More than 20 permanent secretaries have been empowered to invoke a controversial anti-fake news law on behalf of Singapore’s ministers during a general election (GE).

In a circular published in Monday’s (8 June) government e-gazette, it was announced that the perm secs have been appointed as “the Minister’s alternate authority during an election period”, in accordance with section 52(3) of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA).

They are the permanent secretaries for all 16 ministries and several portfolios in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO).

Only ministers are empowered to invoke POFMA, and to compel parties and individuals who are deemed to have published a false statement of fact online to issue corrections or remove articles. However, the law states that once a Writ of Election is issued, ministers cease to have this power during the election period. This period stretches from the day the Writ is issued till the close of Polling Day.

During the election period, these powers may be exercised by an alternate authority - a senior civil servant designated by the respective ministers.

All 19 Cabinet ministers, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, have appointed alternate authorities to cover their various portfolios.

General election due

The circulars were issued on the same day that the Elections Department (ELD) announced wide-ranging safety measures to be deployed in the event that a GE is held amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The ELD also announced tightened rules on the use of paid Internet advertisements during a GE.

The next GE must be held by 14 April 2021. However, comments by senior leaders have raised expectations that Singaporeans will be going to the polls in the coming months.

In a television interview last month, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said that the sooner polls are held, the earlier the elected government can rally Singapore together to deal with significant long-term economic challenges.

Shortly before Heng’s comments, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing said that there is “not much time” left for Singapore’s government to hold its next general election as the city-state has to dissolve parliament in January, months ahead of an April deadline.

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