Darren Grayson Chng, our Singapore corespondent, reports on the first uses of the Singapore's Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA).
The passing of POFMA on 8 May 2019 created the biggest hoo-ha (see here for my earlier article). Then all we could hear was the faint sound of a clock ticking amid a sea of silence, through POFMA’s enactment on 2 October. It was only a matter of time before the Government used POFMA. But when?
Well the itching wait is now over. POFMA was used three times within five days in November. Two Correction Directions were issued to individuals, and a Targeted Correction Direction was issued to Facebook.
As a quick recap, POFMA (Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act) is Singapore’s anti-fake news law. It has extra-territorial effect, and allows any Minister to issue a Correction Direction to a communicator of a false statement, requiring him/her to communicate in Singapore a “correction notice”. The Direction may require the communicator to place the correction notice in a specified proximity to every copy of the false statement of fact.
POFMA also allows a Minister to issue a Targeted Correction Direction to the internet intermediary whose service is used in communicating the false statement in Singapore. It requires the internet intermediary to communicate a correction notice to end-users in Singapore who access the false statement.
The first Correction Direction
It was an anticlimax, I thought. Opposition party member Brad Bowyer had made a Facebook post on 13 November, implying that the Singapore Government controlled Temasek’s and GIC’s investment decisions. This was false, the Government said on its fact-checking website, Factually. (Temasek is an investment company incorporated in 1974 to hold and manage the Singapore Government’s investments. GIC is a sovereign wealth fund established in 1981 by the Singapore Government to manage Singapore’s foreign reserves.)
On 25 November, the Minister for Finance instructed the POFMA Office to issue a Correction Direction to Bowyer, requiring him “to carry in full, the Correction Notice at the top of his Facebook post.” Bowyer complied by inserting a note at the top of his Facebook post that his post contained false statements of fact, as well as a link to “the correct facts”.
A friend working as in-house counsel in Singapore said: “I think it is unsurprising that the first person to be charged under POFMA would be a politician, and for propagating false news regarding the government. I hope the person, who posted a somewhat insincere apology, appeals, to test the system and the procedures for appeal.”
Truth be told, before 25 November, many Singaporeans including myself had not even heard of Brad Bowyer so by taking this action the Singapore Government may simply have drawn international attention to a Facebook post which might otherwise only have been read by a smaller group of Singaporeans. But I can understand why the Government would want to invoke POFMA, and was impressed that it only took them 12 days to gather the statistics and get the necessary approvals to publish their corrections on Factually.
What I am wondering, however, is what to do with these two pieces of information? Like Bowyer’s Facebook post, the Government’s “corrections and clarifications” come as assertions, without references. So I wonder if we are left in a “he said she said” quandary. Are we meant to believe these assertions because they come from the Government? Or are we meant to perform our own investigations? Is the Government happy to let Singaporeans decide who and what to believe?
In any event, my friend may get his wish. Boyer published a Facebook post on 28 November saying: “Currently, I am still studying the final implementation of the legislation and its processes and so reserve my right to appeal at the appropriate time and in the appropriate manner.”
The second Correction Direction
On 28 November, the Minister for Finance instructed the POFMA Office to issue a Correction Direction to Alex Tan Zhi Xiang with regard to a Facebook post published on 23 November, on the “States Times Review” Facebook page. Tan is the editor of the States Times Review (STR) and runs its Facebook page.
According to Factually, the Facebook post contained “false statements of fact”, and the States Times Review had made “scurrilous accusations against the Elections Department, the Prime Minister, and the election process in Singapore”.
However, as at 1 December, the Facebook post remained in its entirety without any correction notice. A post was published in the evening of 28 November stating: “…the site is based in Australia and it obeys only Australian jurisdiction. No foreign government orders or censorship demands will be acceded with.”
The Targeted Correction Direction
On 29 November, the Minister for Home Affairs instructed the POFMA Office to issue the Direction to Facebook, “following Mr Alex Tan Zhi Xiang’s non-compliance with the Correction Direction”. The Direction required Facebook to publish a Correction Notice on the STR’s 23 November Facebook post.
This is how Facebook complied:
On 29 November, the STR published a Facebook post announcing that Tan had “reposted his ‘offending’ article in three other social media platforms: Twitter, Google and Linkedin”.
I am eagerly waiting to see what the Government is going to do about this, as well as Tan’s refusal to comply with the Correction Direction issued to him. The POFMA Office had issued a media release on 29 November saying that it had commenced investigations against Tan for failing to comply with the Correction Direction.
Under POFMA, an individual who fails to comply with a Correction Direction and who has no reasonable excuse for his/her failure, can be fined up to SGD 20,000 and/or jailed for up to a year.
Darren Grayson Chng is our International Associate Editor for Singapore