Singapore’s controversial anti-fake news laws are facing their first serious legal challenge after the country’s opposition party, the Singapore Democratic Party, took the government to court for refusing to withdraw a correction notice issued to one of their Facebook posts.
How POFMA works in Singapore
The law, which is officially called the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) was introduced last October to widespread criticism.
Under the law, if a single Government minister in Singapore decides a post on social media contains factual inaccuracies or false information, they can demand that individuals or platforms post a correction notice at the top of the post stating that it is not true.
Failure to comply can result in big fines and prison sentences for individuals, while the government also reserves the right to block or censor offending content.
Since the law came into effect, it has been used four times. On each occasion, the target has either been the political opposition in Singapore or political dissidents critical of the ruling party.
It is not just opposition politicians that have been affected by the new rules. Tech companies are far from impressed either.
If an individual fails to comply, the Singaporean government can require the company running the social media site to put up the notice instead.
This happened in the case of an Australia-based Singaporean blogger named Alex Tan who posted on Facebook about allegations of election rigging in Singapore. When he refused to post the government’s correction statement, the government contacted Facebook.
They complied, apparently reluctantly, with the request adding a statement which read, “Facebook is legally required to tell you that the Singapore government says this post has false information.”
The opposition’s legal challenge
At the end of November last year, the Singapore Democratic Party put up a series of posts about the issue of about the displacement of Singaporean white-collar workers by foreigners.
They were issued with a correction order which they complied with, although they did add a passage underneath the correction putting it in context. But they then appealed against the ruling. This appeal was unsuccessful and the correction order was not retracted.
So, the Singapore Democratic Party has taken the issue to court and continues to argue that nothing in its posts was inaccurate.
In a public statement, issued last week, the party explained why it was taking the case to court. “We must stand up for our fellow Singaporeans and fight for what little space we have left in Singapore to uphold our democratic freedoms.”
It then got even stronger, describing the POFMA as “a dagger “plunged…into the heart [of] Singapore’s political system already plagued by anti-democratic rules.”
Big concerns over freedom of expression
Activists and opposition politicians remain convinced that the POFMA is being used as a tool to restrict freedom of expression and impose government censorship onto online content in Singapore.
Speaking to the Washington Post last month, the Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, argued that “Singapore’s law is designed specifically to put Internet companies like Facebook in a headlock to comply with these rights abusing edicts.”
He is right. Even though Facebook were clearly not happy to comply with the law, they did. As a result, the first thing anyone sees when they look at that post is a statement saying it is false.
Visitors in the know might be willing to overlook this statement and carry on reading. But many others will not and this is exactly what the government of Singapore wants.
This is almost as effective as having content blocked or removed from the internet altogether as it discredits the content to anyone who is not familiar with this new law and the partisan way it can be applied.
Censorship in Singapore
Censorship is also an option that remains on the table too. If a user fails to post the required correction and the Singapore government cannot get the platform to act either, they still reserve the power to block content.
Online censorship in Singapore is already widespread as the government seeks to stem the flow of critical information. This controversial law is just another string in their bow. They have also considered blocking VPNs to prevent people in Singapore from having free access to information.
VPNs are also an ideal tool for people in Singapore to access and post content on the internet anonymously. As such, it would not come as a huge surprise if legislation against VPNs was passed eventually.
For now VPNs continue to work in Singapore and are an essential tool for those who value their online freedoms.
But they do not have much effect against these anti-fake news laws. There are only two things that could counter the effect of this dangerous legislation. The first is a successful legal challenge, which is hopefully now underway.
The second is education, to ensure as many people as possible in Singapore and beyond know that if you find an article with a government correction at the top, far from dismissing it as fake news, you should read it keenly as this article contains information the government doesn’t want you to know.