SINGAPORE — The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) was passed in Parliament on Wednesday (8 May), bringing to a close a process which began with the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods holding public hearings early last year.
The new law comes as governments around the world grapple with the spread of fake news, and its potential impact to sow social discord or even political upheavals such as affecting the outcome of elections.
The Singapore government has said that the new law will help society guard against malicious actors who knowingly spread harmful falsehoods and act against public interest. It has stressed that the law targets falsehoods, not opinions and criticisms, nor satire or parody.
The law defines that a statement is false if it is false or misleading, whether wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears.
Perpetrators face fines of between $30,000 and up to $1 million, and/or up to 10 years’ jail.
Minister for Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam said on Wednesday that the government must have the powers to deal with online falsehoods swiftly, and repeatedly assured Members of Parliament (MPs) that the court is the final arbiter on the matter.
A total of 72 parliamentarians voted for the Bill while all nine Workers’ Party (WP) MPs and NCMPs voted against the Bill and three NMPs - Anthea Ong, Irene Quay and Associate Professor Walter Theseira - abstained.
WP chief Pritam Singh had asked the Speaker for the parliamentarians’ votes to be formally recorded.
Concerns over decision-making
The law had triggered widespread concerns inside and outside the House including on the definition of what constitutes a falsehood, the powers to be given to individual ministers to deal with falsehood, and the potentially adverse impact it would have on free speech.
During the second reading of the Bill on Tuesday and Wednesday, the House was divided along partisan lines with WP MPs speaking up against it and PAP MPs expressing support for it.
One criticism by the opposition MPs was that the initial decision-making process on online falsehoods shouldn’t reside with the government, but should instead be vested with the courts.
Pritam also suggested that the courts could issue expedited orders against online falsehoods, similar to interim orders granted under the Protection from Harassment Act.
His fellow Aljunied GRC MP, Low Thia Khiang, said the law is a ploy by the government to cement its “absolute power”.
Ong, Quay and Prof Theseira highlighted their concerns about the new law granting the government far-reaching powers to curb online communication.
They proposed an independent council to review the Government's actions in tackling online falsehoods.
Shanmugam said such a council might add to unnecessary bureaucratic bloat, and all functions of a such a council to tackle falsehoods can be achieved under the current structure of the Executive in Parliament.
Corrections as primary response
When a minister determines an individual behind a falsehood and issues an order, the latter has to comply first. The individual can choose to apply to the minister to cancel the order. If the minister decides not to accede, the individual can appeal to the court.
A minister can order an individual to issue a correction alongside content deemed false, or to take down the content. The law will also give ministers the power to direct online sites such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to put warnings next to posts that are deemed false.
The law ministry had said last month that corrections would be the primary response to a harmful online falsehood that is actively spreading.
“Corrections will usually require the facts to be put up alongside the falsehood, so that the facts can travel together with the falsehood. Online platforms may also be required to ensure that those who previously saw the falsehood also see the correction,” it said.
Concerns over a chilling effect
Education Minister Ong Ye Kung earlier on Wednesday addressed concerns among some academics that the fake news law could be used to stifle political discourse, saying that research should not be conflated with activism.
Ong said, “Any activist will not be caught by POFMA if you express an opinion or hurl criticisms at the government. The law treats all activists equally – whether you are an academic or a man or woman on the street…You are as free as an ordinary citizen to comment on current affairs and critique the government.”
Conversely, he added, any activist – academic or not – who spread online falsehoods that harm society will have to face the law.
Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran explained to Parliament why the law vested authority in portfolio ministers.
“The minister, supported by his ministry’s officials and resources, would have the requisite domain expertise to make an assessment and act quickly to stem the potential harm arising from an online falsehood,” he said.
Aggrieved parties can appeal against the minister’s decision in court, and accountability is ensured as the minister is also answerable in Parliament.
“Therefore, in assigning the powers under the Bill to portfolio ministers, the Bill correctly locates authority with accountability, supported by the requisite knowledge and expertise to make swift decisions,” added Iswaran.