Singapore media practitioners voice concerns over proposed fake news law

PHOTO: Getty Images
PHOTO: Getty Images

SINGAPORE — Several current and former media practitioners have released a statement expressing their disappointment and concerns over the proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) tabled in Parliament on 1 April.

The writers – who include Yahoo News Singapore contributor PN Balji, Howard Lee, Choo Zheng Xi, Ravi Philemon, Joshua Chiang, Kumaran Pillai and Braema Mathi – said in the statement released on Thursday (18 April) that their objections to the Bill are based on three concerns:

  • The excessive infringement on freedom of expression, which will impact the work of media practitioners;

  • The government’s inability to appreciate the digital news industry and to work with media practitioners to combat disinformation; and

  • The increasing lack of government accountability to citizens.

The above-mentioned concerns have been expressed by various media practitioners, academia and civil society groups since the Bill was first made public, the statement said. But the concerns were either barely addressed by the Law Ministry since, or did not adequately address the concerns raised by these individuals and were quickly rebutted, it added.

Statement sent to MPs to encourage more informed debate

If left to proceed along these lines, POFMA will cause immediate and long-term harm to freedom of expression, impede the development of an engaged and thinking public, and erode trust in the government.

The statement has been sent to all Members of Parliament, which the writers hope will encourage a more informed debate on the Bill in Parliament next month.

They have recommended several directions for the MPs to consider when debating the Bill:

  • To reconsider POFMA in light of the original purpose of Singapore’s fight against disinformation, which was to maintain racial and religious harmony and the integrity of the elections. The writers contend that such issues have a much narrower scope than “online falsehoods”, and there is a need for the government to craft laws that address these issues surgically.

  • To consider amending relevant laws, such as the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act and Election Acts, to better accommodate the repulsion of disinformation. This would allow for the refinement of laws to specifically cater to the nuances of disinformation related to such situations, and also grant the government more legitimacy in using targeted tools.

  • To consider all media entities, mainstream and online, as valuable partners in the fight against disinformation, rather than as the problem. Doing so affirms the government’s sincerity in enhancing freedom of expression and developing a more engaged public.

Should it be decided in Parliament that POFMA proceeds, the statement urges the MPs:

  • To remove the sixth condition of falsehoods mentioned in the Bill, as well as all related clauses, that grant the government excessive jurisdiction over the definition and persecution of perceived falsehoods. The writers contend that state legitimacy is not attained by force of laws, but in demonstrating a willingness to share power with those the government serves.

  • To stipulate in the law conditions for the government to respond in a timely fashion to substantive efforts by media practitioners to clarify information, failing which the government cannot declare a statement false.

  • To consider the formation of an independent body comprising government representatives, community leaders, civil society groups, mainstream and online media practitioners and legal professionals, to serve as the deciders of disinformation, whose decisions would be arbitrated by the courts before any corrective actions are to be taken against said disinformation.

Lack of clarity for journalists to practise their craft

The statement elaborated on the three concerns raised by the writers on the POFMA.

They contend that the Bill gives little clarity on how opinion pieces on government policies can completely avoid running afoul of POFMA, given that such articles would include a combination of diverse, and sometimes contradictory, facts and viewpoints during their analysis.

Such ambiguity, they argue, will make it hazardous for journalists to practise their craft in an environment where the Singapore government has demonstrated a low tolerance for even the slightest hint that it made a mistake.

“This may result in news outfits likely choosing to pre-emptively self-censor or comply with directions without further thought, to avoid more severe legal ramifications such as curtailment of funding or imprisonment,” the statement said, adding that the proposed Bill promotes a “carpet bombing” mentality that pays no heed to nuances between facts, opinions and outright disinformation.

The statement also contends that POFMA essentially makes the Government a reactive player in the fight against disinformation, rather than a proactive and engaged partner of serious media outlets. Such an approach leads to a public that will be increasingly distrustful towards both the Government and media outlets.

It also argues that the Bill indicates a worrying trend of a government that is eager to implement laws that over-extend its reach into civic discourse and grants it unchecked powers that can be abused by this government or future ones.

“This is patently unhealthy for public trust in the government, rendering any progress POFMA might make in securing free and fair elections nought,” the statement said.

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