PEN International is concerned by reports that legislation ostensibly intended to counter ‘fake news’ is being applied to remove legitimate commentary on the Singapore government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Singapore Government has issued a Correction Direction to several organizations, including the web-based media organizations, New Naratif and The Online Citizen Asia, under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA). Both outlets have been forced to preface articles with a correction notice which links to a government statement.
Other organizations served the Direction include Channel News Asia and the National University of Singapore Society (NUSS), the alumni body of Singapore’s main university. The Direction concerns remarks made by Dr. Paul Tambyah, which were carried in articles published on their sites. Dr Tambyah is a physician and incoming President of the US-based International Society of Infectious Diseases, and who is a candidate for the opposition Singapore Democratic Party.
Dr. Tambyah’s remarks were carried in two separate interviews – first, in an interview by New Naratif’s managing director, Dr. Thum Ping Tjin, which was livestreamed on the website of The Online Citizen, which also carried an excerpt on its Facebook page. In the interview, Dr. Tambyah had praised the government’s early handling of the COVID-19 pandemic but also made critical remarks about its subsequent management. Dr. Tambyah made similar remarks to the NUSS, which were carried on the alumni body’s YouTube channel and reported in the state-owned network, CNA.
Singapore holds its parliamentary election on July 10, and election campaigns tend to be short. When the POFMA was introduced in October 2019, the government had reassured the public and parliamentarians that it would not restrict legitimate debate or criticism of the government, but the effect of the POFMA during an election campaign can prevent criticism of the government from being raised. Singapore’s Constitution Article 14 grants every Singapore citizen freedom of speech, assembly, and association. Subject to two clauses, every Singapore citizen has the right to freedom of speech and expression; the right to assemble peacefully; and the right to form associations. Furthermore, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights grants everyone the right to seek, receive, and impart information.
In response to the development, PEN International’s Chair of Writers in Prison Committee, Salil Tripathi, said: “Elections are an important time for voters to ask questions to governments and hold officials to account. Issuing correction directives during an election can chill political conversation and stifle debate, preventing voters from getting necessary information. This is a matter of dismay. The government should withdraw such directives and amend the law to ensure that it does what it is meant to do – fight fake news, not block criticism.”
The POFMA was intended to deal with the dissemination of falsehoods online, or ‘fake news.’ The law grants any government Minister or officials they appoint unprecedented and sweeping powers to act against anything they deem to be ’false’ and against the public interest. Ministers have a wide range of actions under the Act, including requiring the writer or publisher to issue a correction notice, or forcing the statement to be taken down, failing which penalties, including fines of up to $20,000 and prison terms of up to 12 months for non-compliance. The writer or the publisher has the right to appeal, and the appeal process is to be completed in eight days, but given the short cycle of political campaigning in Singapore, such a directive issued after the first day of the election period effectively removes the news or commentary from the public domain until the election is over. The Ministry of Manpower and the Ministry of Health have addressed both of Dr. Tambyah’s statements in one POFMA order.
Freedom of expression in Singapore is subject to restrictions and has been defined as ‘partly free’ in the Freedom House 2020 report, with a major concern being the introduction of the POFMA. Dr. Thum, a historian, Rhodes Scholar, and a visiting fellow at Oxford University, is the co-editor of Living with Myths in Singapore, a book collecting essays on Singapore’s nationhood and identity. He has been critical of the POFMA and has challenged its reach, most notably in his 2018 submission to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods of the Parliament of Singapore, which was met with personal attacks from the Committee aimed at undermining his academic credentials. New Naratif (newnaratif.com) is a movement that promotes democracy, freedom of expression, and freedom of information in Southeast Asia. The Online Citizen Asia is Singapore’s longest-running independent online media platform. Its Chief Editor is Terry Xu who in 2018 was charged with defamation for a social media post alleging corruption in government